In a first, King County takes on WA over prison mental health issues

In a first, King County takes on WA over prison mental health issues

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King County Attorney’s Office files multiple civil contempt orders against Department of Health and Human Services, alleging state officials failed to provide timely mental health services to incarcerated individuals .

This is the first time King County officials have intervened in this way. They are also asking judges to fine DSHS $219.90 a day — funds that will be used to reimburse the county jail for the cost of caring for people with serious mental illnesses who would otherwise be housed in public hospitals.

Local courts across the state are growing increasingly frustrated with their inability to get people out of county jails and treat them with mental health. Meanwhile, hundreds of people wait in legal limbo, their cases blocked as they wait in prison to be transferred to public psychiatric hospitals. King County’s decision could foreshadow additional efforts to force the state to find a solution or risk continued fines.

The county motions, filed on behalf of the King County Executive’s Office, were filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court in the criminal case of Jay Alexander, a Seattle man with a history of mental illness. who assaulted two people and killed one this summer, as well as in the cases of six other defendants.

“Today, we are holding the state to account and beginning to file contempt orders with the court to hold the state to its constitutional obligations,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement. a statement.

“These cases are serious – alleged crimes like murder, assault and rape. And delaying trials while defendants wait for their assessments or restorative services creates huge costs for local governments, potentially delaying critical behavioral health care and preventing justice.

The county argues the state is violating a previous class-action settlement known as Trueblood, which in 2018 established time limits for people in jail to receive basic mental health services. The settlement stated that with a judge’s order, people should receive assessments to determine if they are fit to stand trial within 14 days, and restorative services at state psychiatric facilities like the Western or Eastern State Hospital within seven days. State officials have struggled to meet these deadlines, and people are often waiting, stuck in jail, weeks or months past their allotted time.

In one case from Grays Harbour, for example, Joshua Marsh spent eight months waiting for a skills assessment and restorative treatment at Western State Hospital. His attorney said that had he been given the opportunity to plead guilty to his charges, he likely would have been released from prison sooner.

In November, King County prosecutors estimated there were 350 felony cases requiring mental health services.

For prosecutors, that means deliberating which cases to prosecute and which to dismiss. Likewise, judges must balance long wait times and the constitutional rights of people who have not yet been tried or convicted of a crime with risks to public safety if the accused were released.

DSHS has already paid $98 million in taxpayer money since 2018 for this failure. This money is earmarked for diversion programs and other initiatives like a forensic navigator program where staff support people as they transition from prisons to public hospitals and back into the community. In some cases, money also goes to defendants for their extended wait times, but these penalties vary from county to county and judge to judge.

Yet long waiting times persist in prisons, courts and public hospitals. DSHS officials attribute the delays to difficulties hiring and retaining mental health professionals, a shortage of beds in the state, and a growing demand for mental health services, all exacerbated by COVID-19.

“The numbers (about 100 people on any given day) have become intolerable, our resources are stretched thin, and we have no sign of there being a resolution of the backlog coming from the state at this point,” Chase said. Gallagher. , spokesperson for the executive office.

Other counties like Pierce and Grays Harbor have made similar attempts to redirect penalties that would go toward the cost of caring for people in local jails.

If a judge upholds King County’s motions, state officials would pay about $46,200 for each month the seven defendants do not get services at a public facility. The total cost for the 100 people awaiting proficiency treatment and restoration at the King County Jail would be much higher – $660,000 per month.

A DSHS spokesperson said the agency would oppose the motions.

“Hospitals are full, referrals have increased by 40% over the past year as we face severe staffing shortages affecting the entire country,” an emailed statement read. “We are working to increase capacity and bring additional beds online as quickly as possible. Our commitment remains to serve our customers.

According to the most recent DSHS data, judges ordered 536 people statewide to receive skills assessments in September. About 70% received one on time. A further 163 people have been ordered to receive restorative treatment. Only 6% received this treatment on time.

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Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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