Prosecutor: Influx of mentally ill inmates stuck in local jails is a 'public safety crisis'

Prosecutor: Influx of mentally ill inmates stuck in local jails is a ‘public safety crisis’

More judges across the state are dismissing charges against mentally ill defendants who wait too long for mental health treatment in prison.

SEATTLE — King County records show that over the past four years judges have released dozens of mentally ill defendants charged with crimes because they waited too long in jail for mental health treatment ordered by the court.

In Washington, state law requires defendants found to be so mentally ill they cannot understand the charges against them to receive help at a state psychiatric hospital within seven days. Currently, according to records, some inmates are waiting up to nine months for a bed at Western State Hospital, operated by the Department of Health and Human Services (DSHS).

The registration backlog prompted judges across the state to either release the defendants on their own recognizance or dismiss the charges altogether, citing a violation of the defendants’ constitutional right to receive medical treatment while in custody.

As of 2018, charges dismissed due to long wait times include stalking, indecent exposure, burglary, hate crimes and assault with a deadly weapon, records show.

“This is a public safety crisis,” said Rebecca Vasquez, a senior assistant prosecutor with the King County District Attorney’s Office that specializes in these cases. “These delays harm public safety, harm my office’s ability to do our jobs and prosecute cases, and harm the defendants whom (DSHS is) assigned to deal with.”

Residents of the small rural town of New Meadows, Idaho know all too well the worst-case scenario when mentally ill inmates are released due to unconstitutional wait times for psychiatric help.

Tragedy in Idaho

John Cody Hart was released from Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Washington in July due to a lack of timely treatment for his mental health.

In October, the 28-year-old ended up in New Meadows, Idaho – allegedly shoot and kill Rory and Sara Mehen, two pillars of the community he had never met.

“We are all in mourning,” said New Meadows Mayor Julie Good. “How could this happen? How is it that he is free to come into our small, quiet, beautiful community and wreak havoc on not just the family’s life, but our lives? How does this happen and there is no reason for it to happen.

Before heading to Idaho, Hart was serving time in Clark County Jail, awaiting trial on first- and second-degree assault charges. According legal documents, in 2021, Hart allegedly attacked an acquaintance in a Vancouver apartment. “Without provocation”, prosecutors said he strangled the man and tried to “gouge out his eyes” with his thumbs.

After a four-month wait for a bed at Western State Hospital, a Clark County judge got fed up. Judge Robert Lewis freed Hart to await a bed in the community hospital. Hart was supposed to be under intense surveillance with several conditions, including an order not to possess firearms.

“I just can’t keep holding (Hart) in the hope that maybe one day (DSHS will come) get him (to take him to Western State Hospital),” Judge Lewis said on July 22. . “I do this with some reluctance because the charges against Mr. Hart are very serious… His request for release is granted.

Three months later, Rory and Sara Mehen were dead.

“They were all community-oriented and coming together for a common purpose,” Good said. “I think it’s insulting, the reality that this shouldn’t have happened. It’s going to be difficult no matter what; but the way it happened and the reason why it happened, it only adds a punch to the pain we feel.

According to police records, Hart told investigators he shot the couple in the lobby of the historic hotel they owned and operated – the Hartland Inn – after Pope ordered him to kill the Mehens. because they were like “Bonnie and Clyde”. He said the couple made him feel like a “thief” because he searched guest rooms for socks he thought belonged to his children.

“It’s horrible to hear. I am devastated to hear that someone has come out and been injured,” said Dr Thomas Kinlen, director of the DSHS Office of Mental Health Forensic Services. “(For) the entire department, (public safety) is a top concern. That’s why we want to get these orders (for psychiatric services) out as quickly as possible.”

DSHS officials said the unpredictable and unprecedented demand has exceeded hospital capacity. Long pauses in hospital admissions due to COVID are also compounding the bottleneck at local jails across the state, state officials say.

“We are adding capacity as quickly as possible. But adding beds unfortunately takes time,” Kinlen said. “We are trying to expand and create additional beds, but the (court-ordered services) keep increasing.”

“We are working as hard as we can,” said DSHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Waiblinger. “We’re constantly trying to think, ‘If we can’t create extra beds and we can’t create staff from nothing, what can we do to make things better? What can we do to make things more efficient? »

King County in Legislative Assembly: ‘You are putting the community at risk’

Vasquez, of the King County prosecutor’s office, said she’s watched the system fail defendants and the public for years due to poor planning and chronic underfunding of mental health resources. She said the legislature needs to look closely at funding priorities.

“(It’s) a huge crisis. And the system is years past its breaking point,” Vasquez said. “(Legislators) need to know that you are putting the community at risk by preventing prosecutors from seeking justice. They are putting the community at risk by allowing people out of jail with no safe place to go. Our entire community is impacted by not caring for people with severe behavioral health needs. »

The October murders of Sara and Rory Mehen were the first acts of random violence remembered in New Meadows, Idaho. The small town is working to make sure the tragedy doesn’t define them, but they have a message for policy makers in Washington.

“Anything they can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again in another small community has to happen, they have to find a way,” Mayor Good said. “Why do we as a community need to be part of this broken system? »

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