Today, a federal court ruled that the persistent delays in the provision of court-ordered competency evaluation and restoration services to pre-trial detainees incarcerated in jails violates constitutional due process rights. "This ruling is an important confirmation that the constitution protects everyone, including people with mental illness. To comply with the constitution, the state may only deprive individuals with mental illness of their liberty before a criminal trial if the state provides the care and treatment needed to evaluate and restore those individuals to mental competence," said Sarah Dunne, ACLU of Washington legal director.
The ruling came in a lawsuit (A.B. v. DSHS) filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on behalf of individuals who have experienced lengthy delays in receiving court-ordered competency evaluation and restoration services in state criminal cases.
Under Washington state law, whenever there is reason to doubt that an individual with mental disabilities is competent to stand trial, the trial court is to order an evaluation to determine competency. State law charges Eastern State Hospital (ESH) and Western State Hospital (WSH) with evaluating and treating these individuals. If their competency is restored, their criminal cases may be adjudicated; if their competency is not restored, the criminal charges are dismissed. During the evaluation and restoration periods, speedy trial rights are automatically waived, and the criminal proceedings are stayed.
Unfortunately, the defendants have persistently failed to perform these services on a timely basis, and stays of criminal proceedings pending evaluation and restoration of competency often last for months. As a result, individuals with mental health disabilities have languished in city and county jails for weeks and months without appropriate mental health treatment while awaiting transport to ESH or WSH for evaluation and restoration of competency.
These individuals often end up spending more time in jail prior to adjudication than they would if they had pleaded guilty. More importantly, the delays have caused individuals with mental health disabilities to experience needless deterioration in their mental health as they sit in jails, frequently in solitary confinement for 22 to 23 hours a day, for weeks and months on end. Jail disciplinary systems may further exacerbate mental health conditions.
Attorneys handling the case are Christopher Carney of Carney Gillespie Isitt PLLP; David Carlson and Emily Cooper of Disability Rights Washington; Sarah Dunne, La Rond Baker, and Margaret Chen of the ACLU of Washington; and Anita Khandelwal of the Public Defender Association.