- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 21, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - The state of Washington has accrued fines of almost $7.5 million for failing to provide competency services to mentally ill people charged with crimes who must wait in jails for weeks or months before receiving evaluations or treatment.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman issued an order Tuesday saying the state must pay the outstanding balance of $2.3 million.

Disability Rights Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state in 2014 to try to stop the excessive wait times for people ordered to receive competency evaluations after being charged with a crime, or ordered to have their competency restored.

Pechman issued an order in that case last year saying the Washington Department of Social and Health Services is violating their constitutional rights by making them wait in a jail cell for weeks or months before receiving services. She gave the state until January 2016 to fix the problem, but the waitlists continue.

In July, Pechman found the state in contempt of her order and issued fines. Those fines reached $7,486,550 by Dec. 14.

“I didn’t expect to see changes overnight, but it has been a year and a half and we still have people waiting far, far too long,” said David Carlson with Disability Rights Washington.

La Rond Baker, an ACLU lawyer, said they’ve seen improvements in some areas, like in the jail evaluations, but said “there’s a substantial amount of work they have to do.”

Carla Reyes, assistant secretary for the DSHS Behavioral Health Administration, said since the ruling, 19 additional evaluators have been hired and 96 more inpatient beds have been added across four facilities.

Over the last year and a half, average wait times for in-jail evaluation have shrunk from a high of nearly 67 days to 15 at Eastern State Hospital with inpatient evaluations showing an even greater decrease from a high of nearly 92 days to less than six days, Reyes said. At Western State Hospital, she said the average wait time for in-jail evaluation has shrunk from a high of nearly 21 days to 13 days.

“While we have made great strides, our work continues as we manage increasing demand for competency services,” Reyes said in the statement.

Western State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility, has been in trouble with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services over safety violations. Last year, the Legislature provided more funds for staff, but problems persist at the 800-bed hospital.

The contempt fines are being held in an account and must be used for diversion programs designed to keep mentally ill people from going to jail in the first place, Baker said.

“The programs will keep them away from the criminal justice system by providing them with the services they need,” she said.

They’ve received proposals from about 10 mental health care providers, Baker said. They’ll decide by late January or early February who will receive the funds, she said.


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

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