Suit Seeks to End Long Delays in Mental Health Evaluations for Individuals in Jail

News Release: 
Friday, October 3, 2014

Individuals Have Had Long Waits in Jail for Evaluation and Restoration of Competency in Criminal Cases

Attorneys filed a motion today seeking an injunction to bar the state from depriving individuals with mental health disabilities of their due process rights. The motion came in a suit (AB v. DSHS) filed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington on behalf of individuals who have experienced lengthy delays in receiving court-ordered competency evaluation and restoration services in criminal cases.

The suit asserts that the state is violating Plaintiffs’ due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The class action suit was brought on behalf of Disability Rights Washington and four individuals subjected to delays. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Washington, Disability Rights Washington (DRW), the Public Defender Association, and Carney Gillespie Isitt PLLP.

“People with mental disabilities are waiting for weeks and months in jails that simply are not equipped to meet their needs,” said Emily Cooper, DRW attorney representing plaintiffs. “While languishing in jail, many individuals’ mental conditions dramatically worsen, some people lose their homes, their belongings, or their eligibility for community-based services, and in one extreme instance a young woman died from suicide while waiting to be served.”

“My son has been warehoused in jail for nearly six months, of which nearly two months he's been awaiting transfer to Western State for stabilization and treatment.  His condition has just gotten worse and worse.  He has really been suffering and can’t get the treatment he needs while in jail. I’m hoping for urgent action by the court to help him and others,” said Kathryn McCormick, mother of one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

“For years, mental health advocates have urged the State to solve this problem and eliminate harmful delays in providing service to this highly vulnerable group of people.  Because those efforts have failed, we are seeking the assistance of the federal court to compel a solution,” said Sarah Dunne, ACLU of Washington legal director.

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 and Margaret Chen of the ACLU of Washington; and Anita Khandelwal of the Public Defender Association.