- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - A federal judge said Wednesday she has serious constitutional concerns about the way the state handles mentally ill people waiting in jails for competency evaluations and treatment, but she denied a temporary restraining order, saying she needs more information before making changes to Washington’s mental health system.

“You’re asking me to take over the mental health system of this state and issue orders that will have far-reaching impact,” U.S. District Chief Judge Marsha Pechman told lawyers for Disability Rights Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union. “How do I know the TRO would be appropriate and not harm others? I have sympathy for those people deteriorating in jails, but I need a developed record.”

Pechman offered to grant an accelerated trial date instead.

“I’m prepared to give a trial date on the day you want,” she said. “I believe these are very, very significant issues that need to be ruled on rapidly.”

Disability Rights lawyer David Carlson said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision because he believed they offered a list of solutions that would help the situation immediately. But he said he understands the judge’s desire to be fully informed before issuing major orders.

During the hearing, Carlson told the judge the restraining order was appropriate because the state has had years to fix the wait lists that leave mentally ill people languishing in jails for weeks before being evaluated for competency. Despite knowing there’s a problem, the state has not provided the funding to ensure timely evaluations and treatment, he said. Some inmates have committed suicide while awaiting treatment to restore their competency, he said.

“We have people who are being harmed today,” Carlson said. “We are trying to stop the bleeding. They don’t have the resources (to fix it) without a court ordering them to do it in an expedited fashion.”

A few immediate remedies would be to contract with outside evaluators and reallocate bed space in the two hospitals that handle these cases, Carlson said. Sitting in the courtroom was about a dozen people who helped write declarations that were filed with the TRO request - people who have firsthand experience with what they say is a broken system. They included the mother of a man who has been sitting in jail for weeks while losing weight and withdrawing from his family.

Assistant Attorney General John McIlhenny told the judge that those suggestions are not that simple. He also said the wait list problem has “waxed and waned” over the years, and when the lists got dangerously high, the state responded, as it is doing now.

“It’s not the absence of activity” that caused the backlogs, he said. “It’s now suddenly there’s this peak of demand that was not anticipated. It caused a crisis in the system.”

Pechman gave the lawyers until Oct. 20 to report back on their position on calling a fast trial.

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

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