Washington state officials face a $100 million fine for failing to provide adequate mental health care in the state’s prisons for people with serious mental illness.
In a Friday night ruling, Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the US Western District of Washington issued a damning decision, finding that Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services violated a settlement agreement called Trueblood, which set timeframes for jail time for services in use state mental health facilities.
“The main reason [people who fall under the settlement’s terms] As a result, DSHS itself suffered from foresight, creativity, planning and timely response to a crisis of its own making,” Pechman wrote in its 52-page decision.
“The court is not satisfied that DSHS adequately planned for the bed shortage and took appropriate action.”
The ruling comes after nearly a decade of legal wrangling and highlights the state’s ongoing challenges to end the incarceration of people. This is the third time officials have been flouted, and Pechman himself pointed out that “the DSHS has never complied.”
Under the terms of the settlement, defendants who may not be able to stand trial would be judged within 14 days and, if necessary, seven days with the use of recovery services – typically medicine and legal training in one state mental health facility – begin.
However, the state failed to meet these deadlines: in April, people in prison waited an average of 130 days before they could be admitted to a state facility for inpatient treatment.
Among other criticisms, Pechman said the state “effectively created a bed shortage” by closing wards at Western State Hospital that housed patients convicted through the civil court system. Officials said they needed to do this in order to build a new 350-bed hospital that would eventually serve criminal court patients, but Pechman said, “That was poor planning for the laudable goal of building a new hospital.”
DSHS officials said they “review the verdict and understand what the court is asking of us,” but had no further comment. The WA Attorney General’s office declined to comment, citing DSHS. Officials from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and the Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment Friday night.
“We know that competence services are not the solution. We’ve seen time and time again that people with serious mental illnesses have to go back to prison after their rehabilitation,” said Chris Carney, an attorney at Carney Gillespie PLLP who joined Disability Rights Washington plaintiffs in the case, in a statement.
“It’s time to start a new journey and provide housing and support that actually keeps people off the streets and off jail.”
As part of the judge’s ruling, DSHS officials must comply with ten key changes, most notably the cessation of admitting a type of patient known as civilian conversion into state hospitals. These are patients who are initially admitted from prisons on criminal charges but are “transferred” to a separate, civil law system for lack of jurisdiction.
These civilian conversion patients have taken up valuable sleeping space needed for people using competency services. Under Pechman’s order, DSHS must transfer or discharge those patients within 60 days unless they have been held for prior violent crimes. It is not yet clear how many of these patients there are and where they will go.
Officials also face fines if these patients are not discharged or transferred in a timely manner from Western State Hospital or state facilities.
This is making King County officials nervous. In a joint statement, Dow CEO Constantine and District Attorney Leesa Manion said they support timely mental health care.
“However, we are extremely concerned about parts of the ruling as it appears that the judge’s decision will destroy another part of the system,” the statement said. “This means that these patients, who are required by state law to be placed in a secure mental health treatment facility, can be discharged without treatment, endangering public safety and the patients themselves.”
County officials said they would continue to review the decision and evaluate their next options.
The $100 million in fines would have to be paid within 30 days, although the ruling says the state can require an installment plan. The court observer will assemble a planning group to distribute the funds within 45 days. Previous fines in this case were for mental health distraction programs.