Northwest News

Lawmakers respond to court rebuke by allowing inmate treatment in jails, community

The Legislature responded Thursday to a federal judge’s demand to cut crime suspects’ wait times for mental health services to no more than seven days.

Lawmakers will decide in their ongoing budget negotiations how much to spend to address the ruling — how many beds to add and doctors to hire — but the policy changes they sent to Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday for his signature would expand the kinds of places where inmates can be treated.

For inmates deemed safe to treat outside state hospitals, Inslee’s administration would be allowed under Senate Bill 5177 to contract for treatment with private mental health providers or local facilities, even local jails.

“The number of beds that we will need likely will require that we look at every possible option,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who negotiated the measure with Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, and other lawmakers and government officials.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman’s April 2 ruling, though, casts doubt on whether Pechman would consider jails an appropriate setting for treatment.

“Jails are inherently punitive institutions, and are not designed or administered so as to provide for the needs of the mentally ill,” she wrote in one passage. In another, she said: “Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates.”

Jinkins, O’Ban and Inslee’s Department of Social and Health Services all say while traditional cellblocks aren’t therapeutic environments, a space inside a jail building could qualify as therapeutic.

The proposal requires a qualifying jail to offer, “as much as possible,” a therapeutic environment. It requires inmates to be separated from the general population. Jail settings could only be used for the next two years and only if DSHS determines the need for beds is an emergency.

Jinkins said an unused jail or unused part of a jail might qualify.

Pierce County won’t offer up its jail, said Al Rose, the county’s director of justice services.

“We don’t have the personnel nor the money to do that, and we also have great concerns because it seems to be fairly clear in Pechman’s order that she didn’t see jail as a therapeutic environment,” Rose said.

Today, inmates whose mental health status is in question can be evaluated either in a jail, in a local facility or in Western State or Eastern State hospitals. Once evaluated, inmates found incompetent to stand trial must go to one of the two psychiatric hospitals for treatment. There, doctors try to stabilize them and help them understand the court process.

Pechman ordered waits of seven days or less for both evaluation and treatment. Both processes have been taking several times that long.

The Legislature is adding 60 beds at the state hospitals to comply but DSHS said to add more beyond those would take years to install proper security.

Jinkins wants the state to consider the former Maple Lane juvenile lockup in south Thurston county as a site for treatment.

State government hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal Pechman’s ruling, a decision required by June 5. One powerful lawmaker, House Speaker Frank Chopp, recently said the state state should accept the ruling without appeal.