- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - The state of Washington is appealing a portion of a federal judge’s ruling that sought to ensure timely competency services for mentally ill defendants.

Health officials said they are only appealing the portion that mandates competency evaluations within seven days of a judge’s order. They said one week was not enough time to allow some defendants who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs to stabilize. Evaluators send people to hospitals before their mental state is fully understood, officials said.

“We have concerns about false-positives,” said Jane Beyer, assistant secretary for the Behavioral Health and Service Integration Administration. When evaluations are done too quickly, more defendants are found to be incompetent than actually suffer from a mental illness, Beyer said.

The federal lawsuit was filed by mentally ill criminal defendants who were forced to wait weeks or months in jails for competency evaluations. If those defendants were found incompetent to help with their defense, it could be weeks or months before they were moved to one of the state’s two forensic hospitals to receive treatment to have their competency restored.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled in favor of the defendants, saying the state’s Department of Social and Health Services was violating their constitutional rights. Pechman issued a permanent injunction in April that requires the state to conduct evaluations and restoration treatment within one week of a judge’s order.

“Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services,” Pechman said. “Punitive settings and isolation for 23 hours each day exacerbate mental illness and increase the likelihood that the individual will never recover.”

Pechman said the agency has been hampered in providing competency services because the state has failed to adequately fund its mental health system. She also blamed the department for failing to change its procedures “to respond to this ongoing crisis.” The judge appointed a monitor to track the state’s efforts to fix the problem and set a nine-month deadline for full implementation of the changes.

But on June 5, the state Attorney General’s office filed notice that it is appealing Pechman’s order and the health services department posted a news release explaining why. The state’s lawyers have not yet filed their opening brief. Lawyers with Disability Rights Washington who filed the class action lawsuit could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Beyer made clear in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that they are not asking for a stay of the judge’s order, but instead are focusing on the seven-day deadline for evaluations. She said they support the one-week timeline for restoration services.

She said they’re basing the appeal on data collected from other states that have been forced to provide timely competency evaluations. One study from Hawaii found that “some defendant who may have appeared incompetent immediately after incarceration appeared competent after a few weeks,” the Groundswell report said.

“If an evaluator has to rush to make an evaluation, the person could still be under the effects of drugs or alcohol,” Beyer said. “And then they’re stigmatized, labeled mentally ill. We don’t want to stigmatize people who may not be mentally ill.”

“We are basing our appeal on the experience we have for the percentage of people found incompetent under a seven-day rule.”

As of June 5, there were 195 people on the waitlist for competency services at Western State Hospital, with 57 of those people waiting in jail for more than seven days, according to the department. Another 168 people were waiting to get into Eastern State Hospital for evaluations or treatment, officials said.

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


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