- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - A federal appeals court on Friday overturned an order requiring Washington state health officials to provide competency evaluations to mentally ill defendants within seven days of a judge’s order, but said there should be limits on the wait-times for these defendants.

A three-judge panel of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that the state Department of Social and Health Services has failed to comply with its own goals designed to protect the constitutional rights of mentally ill people charged with crimes. But the judges said an order issued last year by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle setting a seven-day deadline for competency evaluations went beyond what the Constitutional requires.

The state did not appeal the part of Pechman’s order requiring competency restoration treatment within seven days, so the appeals court did not address that part of the permanent injunction.

The appeals court sent the case back to federal court to address its findings. In addition to reworking the part of the injunction that sets time limits, the court also wants Pechman to take into account a new law passed in 2015 that requires competency services within 14 days of a court order. It set a non-binding seven-day goal but gave the state two weeks.

State officials said the court agreed with their position that a seven-day deadline was too short.

“States with similar timeframes have found that when competency evaluations are done too quickly, some defendants, who appear incompetent due to mental illness, may really be suffering the effects of drugs or alcohol,” said Carla Reyes, assistant secretary the department’s Behavioral Health Administration. “If that is the case, sending them to a psychiatric hospital for mental health services delays appropriate treatment for substance use disorders and diverts limited resources away people who are in need of mental health treatment services.”

The lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Washington, who filed the lawsuit against the state, said overall, they were pleased with the appeal’s court ruling.

They said they were heartened that the court affirmed a key feature of Pechman’s order: “the need for an injunction to ensure that the rights of individuals with mental illness are respected.”

“This is an important ruling because people with mental illness suffer real harms when they are warehoused in jail waiting for court-ordered services,” said Emily Cooper, staff attorney for Disability Rights Washington. “Jails are not therapeutic settings, and their condition deteriorates when they spend day after day in jail.”

The lawyers said they were also happy that the court said the state must conduct competency evaluations within a reasonable time.

“Whether the ultimate ruling is seven days or 14 days, it will clearly be a tremendous improvement from the weeks and months that some individuals had been waiting in jail for evaluations when the suit was filed,” said ACLU of Washington attorney La Rond Baker.

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Follow Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle

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