- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - Judges across the state of Washington have issued contempt orders and $1.14 million in fines against a health services agency for failing to provide timely competency evaluations and treatment for mentally ill defendants, despite a federal judge’s ruling saying the state is violating the constitutional rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens.

“It’s a very frustrating situation for everybody involved,” said Spokane Superior Court Judge Salvatore Cozza, who has held the state in contempt and ordered fines of $200 per day in dozens of cases since last year. “It’s an important statement that says what has happened so far is not acceptable and it needs to change.”

One fine in Spokane County reached almost $30,000 after a mentally ill inmate waited in jail for 147 days for a court-ordered competency evaluation, according to an Associated Press review of data provided in response to a Public Records Act request. A judge in Cowlitz County started the fines at $2,000 per day, and increased them to $4,000 when an inmate had to wait in jail from Oct. 27 until Dec. 4. The final amount was $40,000.

The state Attorney General’s said Thursday it has paid $32,000 of the $1,140,295 in fines ordered to date - $4,000 in 2014 and $28,000 in 2015.

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the fines “are testament to the fact that we need to expand capacity, which is exactly why the governor is urging the Legislature to ensure our system has the resources it needs.”

Judges order evaluations when they question whether a person charged with a crime is competent to stand trial. If found incompetent, the judge orders treatment at one of the state’s two psychiatric hospitals to restore competency.

But years of funding cuts to the state’s mental health system resulted in a lack of beds and staff at the hospitals that handle these defendants, forcing them to wait in jails for weeks or months before receiving competency services.

Disability Rights Washington sued the state in 2014 on behalf of the defendants claiming that violated their constitutional rights and in April, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman agreed and ordered a permanent injunction requiring the state to provide services within seven days of a judge’s order.

The state failed to meet Pechman’s Jan. 2 deadline and during a Monday hearing on an extension request, she said she was disappointed with the state’s efforts. She said she would issue a ruling in 10 days — a ruling that could be a contempt order and more fines.

During a news conference on Thursday, Inslee said they’re working to fix the problems by increasing the pay for staff so they can recruit and retain nurses and psychologists. But the expansion of the ward that was slated to handle competency cases will be delayed until they have enough staff to provide adequate and safe care, he said.

Kevin Quigley, secretary of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, said the problem arose in 2008 when lawmakers cut 100 beds from the system.

“That 2008 bed cut is ironic because that is almost exactly the number of new beds we are desperately trying to rebuild today,” he said.

Quigley criticized the Legislature’s funding decisions publically when Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anita Farris subpoenaed him and other mental health officials to testify in December about the state’s efforts to provide restoration services to a defendant in her court.

Snohomish County Public Defender Jason Schwarz said Farris and other judges have resorted to releasing defendants when they the contempt orders are ignored.

Schwarz compared the contempt orders to one issued by the Washington Supreme Court last year after the state failed to adequately fund its education system. That order sparked a special session at the Legislature, but Schwarz said even if Pechman finds the state in contempt on the competency issue, he doubts it will make any difference.

“When you’re talking about kids, you have people on your side, but when you’re thinking about the mentally ill, there’s not a lot of interest,” he said.


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

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