Our Voice: The mentally ill should not be kept waiting in jail

County jails are no place for the mentally ill, but that’s where many end up because of a broken state system that turns psychiatric patients into inmates.

Too many people with mental health conditions have been forced to endure wretched conditions in the Washington state corrections system because for years state officials turned a blind eye to their plight.

Only now, because of mounting lawsuits, are some of these problems getting the attention they should have gotten long ago. It is a shame it takes legal action to get inhumane treatment of the mentally ill on the public radar.

One of the latest issues to arise is of the mentally ill languishing in county jails while they await competency evaluations. The tests are supposed to happen within seven days to determine if inmates are able to help with their own defense. If it is found that they can’t, the state has another seven days to get them treatment.

This two-week window is far from reality, however. As it turns out, the average state wait time for a competency evaluation is 51 days, according to Disability Rights Washington, an advocacy group for the mentally ill that has filed a federal lawsuit against the state Department of Social and Health Services. The group also said that earlier this month there were 155 people statewide on wait lists who were well beyond their one-week maximum.

Clearly this is appalling and unacceptable.

Not all mental health patients wait in jail. In Benton County, for example, the latest report available showed 25 people were waiting competency evaluations, but 18 did not have to stay in the jail as they didn’t present a threat to the public. But those who do have to stay locked in a cell, the delay for an evaluation should be as short as possible. And that is not happening.

This is not a jail issue as much as it is a fractured statewide problem that needs to be addressed right away. Keeping any mentally ill patient in jail for months because of a backlogged evaluation system is inexcusable.

Carl Davidson, the Seattle group’s director of legal advocacy, said part of the problem is that Washington’s mental health system is “crisis driven” and more needs to be done to prevent the mentally ill from ending up in jail in the first place.

Some relief may be on the way as the state Supreme Court recently upheld that insurance companies can’t use blanket exclusions to deny mental health coverage. In light of this ruling, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler says his office will review denied mental health claims dating back to 2006.

This is a small step in the right direction, as now more people may be able to afford mental health treatment. But in the meantime, state officials need to provide enough money to get rid of the backlogged evaluation system.

The mentally ill should not be spending their days in jail when what they really need is treatment.