Politics & Government

Mentally ill defendants warehoused in jail could get relief from Tacoma lawmaker’s bill

In this file photo taken April 11, 2017, a security officer stands on steps at the entrance to Western State Hospital in Lakewood.
In this file photo taken April 11, 2017, a security officer stands on steps at the entrance to Western State Hospital in Lakewood. AP

Nearly four years after a federal judge ruled that Washington state violated the rights of mentally ill people by warehousing them in jails, the Legislature is preparing to put required reforms into law.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, would make several changes based on last year’s legal settlement between a nonprofit advocacy group, Disability Rights Washington, and the state. The 2014 lawsuit is known as Trueblood, named after attorney Cassie Trueblood, who originally filed a suit over competency services on behalf of a client.

Describing the state’s treatment of the mentally ill who are accused of crimes as “inexcusable,” Jinkins said the “last thing we want is for this settlement to not work out.”

The bill would expand the number of offenses for which law enforcement can move a mentally ill person out of the criminal justice system and into treatment, allows courts to consider outpatient competency restoration for misdemeanors and some felonies and creates the job of “forensic navigator” to help criminal defendants with mental health issues find resources so they can recover.

The legislation would keep “people out of the criminal justice system and in treatment, where they will be much better served,” Rashi Gupta, a senior policy advisor for Gov. Jay Inslee, told the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee last month.

In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman ruled in favor of a class of criminal defendants suffering from mental illness who were held in county jails for months as they waited to be evaluated to determine if they could assist in their defense. Many of the defendants had to wait for weeks or months to get into either Western State Hospital in Lakewood or Eastern State Hospital near Spokane.

Pechman ordered the state Department of Social and Health Services to provide competency evaluations in a jail within 14 days of a court order and inpatient competency within seven days. The settlement reached last year requires the state to take several steps to meet the seven- and 14-day deadlines.

DSHS also must reduce the number of people ordered to receive competency services by diverting them from the criminal justice system so they can receive treatment in community settings.

Alexa Polaski, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, said the settlement agreement was crafted with the state to address why so many people with mental illness are funneled into the criminal system. Common themes among more than 300 people with a stake in the lawsuit were lack of affordable and permanent supportive housing, lack of 24/7 mobile crisis response, inadequate beds at crisis triage facilities and insufficient community mental health services, Polaski said.

If a defendant is charged with a misdemeanor offense and is found incompetent, the bill authorizes the court to dismiss the charge without prejudice after 24 hours’ notice to the parties. The exception would be if a prosecuting attorney can prove by a “preponderance of evidence” that there is a “compelling state interest” to order restoration. If so, the court may order either inpatient or outpatient competency restoration.

The goal, for example, is to get treatment for mentally ill people or those with intellectual disabilities who are homeless and currently cycle in and out of the criminal justice system for non-felony crimes such as domestic violence.

Backers of the bill, which is awaiting a vote by the House, have stressed that it creates the position of “forensic navigator.” They would be DSHS employees or people contracted to work for the state agency. Their job would be to access the defendant’s housing status and help him or her make the transition to outpatient restoration services and other community resources.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has suggested that the forensic navigators work in county jails so they can screen defendants or be assigned to work with people who are diverted from the criminal justice system.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that we can dismiss their case and refer them for outpatient services and say, ‘Show up to your appointment at 10 a.m. next Thursday,’” said James McMahan, the association’s policy director. “We need to surround them with services to assist them in their treatment and their recovery.”

The Washington State Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties have expressed concern about whether there are sufficient community services available.

Under existing law, law enforcement officers can divert people who have a track record in the mental health system to a triage facility or refer them for an involuntary treatment evaluation — but only if that person has committed misdemeanors that are not serious offenses. At a triage facility, counselors, clinicians, nurses and psychiatric providers help those who are recovering from a mental health crisis.

Jinkins’ bill would allow local jurisdictions to expand the eligible offenses for diversion. Courts could commit a person to outpatient competency restoration if there’s an available program.

Jason Draghi urged the committee to approve HB 1513, which it did Feb. 20. The House Appropriations Committee pass it Thursday, paving the way for a House vote.

Draghi, who told the committee he was homeless and lives in Pierce County, is a member of the Trueblood class who waited about 45 days for a competency evaluation.

“If there was a forensic navigator in place to divert me to treatment and support, I could have become more self-sufficient a long time ago. To be released from jail without transitional help and without proper medications, I’m left back to square one to start my recovery over,” he said.

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