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Judge holds Washington state in contempt for not providing services to mentally ill people in jails

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A federal judge has found Washington state in contempt and ordered it to pay more than $100 million in fines for failing to provide timely psychiatric services to mentally ill people who are forced to wait in jails for weeks or months.

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In her order released late Friday, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said the Washington Department of Social and Health Services has been violating the constitutional rights of these people since 2015 due to a “lack of foresight, creativity, planning and timely response to a crisis of its own making.”

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The ruling stems from a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of people with mental health disabilities who were charged with crimes and ordered by a judge to have a competency evaluation. If found incompetent to face charges, the state must then provide services to restore their competency.

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A lack of funding, personnel and beds in mental health facilities forced them to wait in jails for extended periods, which violated their rights, according to the lawsuit. The state entered into a settlement agreement in 2018 and agreed to address the wait times, but they’ve only grown longer, Pechman said.

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Instead of providing more space in its psychiatric hospitals, the state closed wards, she said.

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“The Court is unpersuaded that DSHS adequately planned for and took reasonable measures to address the bed shortage,” Pechman said. It continued to accrue fines as it missed its court-ordered marks. Those funds were held in abeyance, but Pechman now wants the state to pay $100 million of those fines.

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“This order will make real improvements on a reasonable timeline for the most vulnerable Washingtonians,” Beth Leonard, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, said in a statement Saturday.

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Norah West, a spokesperson for the state agency, said officials were “assessing the ruling and understanding what the court wants us to do.”

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Christopher Carney, representing Disability Rights Washington, said prosecuting vulnerable people accomplishes little. Instead, the funds should be spent on supportive housing with staffing and medication.

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“We just keep throwing away resources and causing harm trying the wrong solutions,” Carney said in a release. “If what we want is to save lives and improve public safety, we know arrest and competency services are not the way to get there. Our clients need homes and help, not more punishment.”