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Washington Racks Up More Than $98 Million in Fines for Failure to Timely Hold Competency Hearings

by Jacob Barrett

In 2018, the State of Washington reached a settlement to reform its forensic health system. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.22; May 2019, p.54.] As part of the settlement, the State agreed to follow the district court’s order “to achieve legislative changes to reduce the number of people ordered into competency evaluation and restoration” and utilize “community-based restoration services.”

Under the agreement, the State promised to provide “restoration services” within 14 days to potentially incompetent detainees awaiting trial. Yet more than 870 people continue to languish awaiting services. Less than 10% of the detainees have received services in the time-frame agreed on by the State.

Not only do the delays implicate public safety concerns but people who have not been found guilty of a crime sit in prison away from their families and loved ones. So in cases where the State fails to timely provide restoration services, judges have the discretion to sanction the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) $500 to $1,500 a day. Over the last four years, Washington has racked up more than $98 million in fines.

Because “compensatory sanctions” are paid directly to the defendant, the State appears to have found it easier to pay detainees than to give them the necessary treatment services. One prisoner, Joshua Marsh, had more than $15,000 deposited to his jail account, according to his public defender.

The case of Vladimir V. Pavlik is notable, as well. Pavlik was finally found competent to stand trial two years after he was accused of attempting to murder his wife in 2016, when he allegedly beat her with a steel bar and cut her tongue out with a steak knife. Due to a series of legal maneuverings and bureaucratic delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, he has not had a trial in a full seven years later. A contested competency hearing is set for March 31, 2023. To date, no sanction has been ordered in his case.

The failure to provide adequate funding for mental and behavioral health services has been blamed for the current crisis in the Washington criminal justice system. More shocking is that DSHS does not have a full record of how many other prisoners like Marsh have received large sanction payouts due to the state’s neglect.

Until Washington finds a way to deal with this crisis, wait times will continue to get worse and prisoners like Marsh will have weeks and months of their lives wasted. In Marsh’s case he was evicted from his home, lost his job, and his driver’s license expired.

Sources: Chehalis-Centralia Chronicle, Seattle Times, Spokane Spokesman-Review

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