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Delayed Washington Competency Evaluations and Treatment Violate Due Process

“The state has consistently and over a long period of time violated the constitutional rights of the mentally ill – this must stop,” declared a Washington federal district court. “The in-jail wait time” before transferring incompetent criminal defendants to state hospitals “is far beyond any constitutional boundary.”

Washington law requires that criminal defendants found incompetent be provided competency evaluations and restoration services. Once evaluation or treatment is ordered, the individual remains in jail until transferred to a state mental hospital.

The Washington legislature has suggested that the in-jail waiting period should not exceed seven days. However, compliance with that time frame has been impossible due to the number of people requiring services and a lack of resources, treatment staff and facilities.

“The hospitals ... are chronically short of beds and staff, and thus the waiting time for transfer ... can now exceed sixty days,” the federal court found. The average waiting times ranged from a low of two weeks to a high of nearly two months, and the court noted the legislature’s target time frame was met less than fifteen percent of the time.

Washington pretrial detainees filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the untimely transfers to mental health facilities. They moved for summary judgment, arguing that the wait periods deprived them of substantive due process.

“Plaintiffs detail the alarming conditions faced by many mentally ill pretrial detainees while in jail awaiting trial,” the court found. “Jails are often not equipped to deal with people with mental health issues, and overwhelmed guards resort to placing mentally ill detainees in solitary confinement.”

As repeatedly reported in PLN, such placements cause dramatic mental health deterioration and increase the risk of suicide.

“Alone for 22 to 23 hours a day and without access to medication, some of these detainees lose touch with reality – damage to their mental health that can take years of intensive mental health services to reverse,” the court wrote.

The defendants conceded “that ‘current wait times for many criminal defendants are excessive and indefensible.’” They argued, however, that inadequate funding, staffing and available facilities inhibited timely transfers.

The federal district court followed Oregon Advocacy Center v. Mink, 322 F.3d 1101 (9th Cir. 2003) [PLN, April 2004, p.36], in which the Ninth Circuit held that “incapacitated criminal defendants have liberty interests in freedom from incarceration and in restorative treatment,” and that a “lack of funds, staff or facilities, cannot justify the State’s failure” to provide necessary treatment.

As in Mink, the district court could “discern no legitimate state interest in ‘keeping mentally incapacitated criminal defendants locked up in county jails for weeks or months.’” The court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, concluding “that the liberty interests of those incarcerated while awaiting court-ordered competency services outweigh countervailing state interests, and that the current waiting periods violate the substantive due process rights of those incarcerated.”

Following the summary judgment order, the court held a bench trial in March 2015. The final judgment, entered on April 2, 2015, stated the defendants were to “cease violating the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and class members by providing timely competency evaluation and restoration services” pursuant to a permanent injunction.

On June 22, 2015, the court awarded the plaintiffs $1,267,769.10 in attorney fees and $35,400.38 in costs. The class members were represented by the ACLU of Washington, the Public Defender Association, Disability Rights Washington and the law firm of Carney Gillespie Isitt, PLLP.

The state has since appealed the district court’s judgment and fee award to the Ninth Circuit. See: A.B. v. Washington State Dept of Social & Health Services, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:14-cv-01178-MJP. 

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Related legal case

A.B. v. Washington State Dept of Social & Health Services