Judge rules against state’s release of suspects with behavioral health problems

Oct 10, 2023, 3:15 PM | Updated: Oct 11, 2023, 11:11 am

(KIRO Radio/Brandi Kruse)...

(KIRO Radio/Brandi Kruse)

(KIRO Radio/Brandi Kruse)

A Pierce County judge ruled in favor of 22 counties that filed a lawsuit against the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) for releasing inmates with behavioral health problems.

The coalition of 22 counties, including King, Pierce and Snohomish, filed a lawsuit against DSHS over the department’s decision to stop providing evaluations and treatments for people in need of behavioral health support when exiting the criminal legal system.

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Despite court orders and state laws requiring the department to provide behavioral health support, DSHS has stated it is no longer obligated to either evaluate or treat patients whose criminal charges are dismissed, citing a federal judge’s orders in a separate case.

When a person charged with a crime is suffering from serious mental health conditions or cognitive disabilities and subsequently has their charges often dismissed due to the inability to understand said charges. DSHS is then ordered by the court to evaluate that individual and, if necessary, provide effective behavioral health treatment. This process is called civil conversion commitment.

In the ruling, Judge Michael Schwartz said that the state must immediately evaluate patients with behavioral health conditions and must provide notice to the community before they are released from treatment.

“(The) ruling affirms the state’s basic obligation to evaluate the behavioral health needs of people in the legal system who can not be tried because they lack the ability to aid in their own defense and to give them an opportunity for meaningful treatment. It does not, of course, solve the very real capacity problems in the behavioral health system born of long-term funding and workforce shortages,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement.

According to Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for King County Prosecutor’s Office, DSHS has released 45 people who are accused of criminal charges due to the state’s inability to provide resources to those with behavioral issues.

“I think counties want to work with the state to find that that solution, but it’s still the state’s responsibility,” McNerthney said on KIRO Newsradio’s Seattle Morning News Monday. “And it just creates very clear urgency, with that added layer of that injunction to say, ‘You’ve got to find something. Just releasing them is not appropriate.'”

When Seattle Morning News host Dave Ross asked whether the injunction meant that assailants who are known to be mentally ill will no longer be released, McNerthney again referred to the state’s role.

“It’s unfortunately, not the decision of prosecutors or even the county executive,” McNerthney said. “But that’s what this injunction has added another layer to say, ‘You can’t release somebody without treatment, particularly when they’re accused of a violent felony crime.’ So, that should happen. And if it doesn’t … that’s really the state’s responsibility.”

‘Trueblood’ settlement

In July, Judge Marsha J. Pechman with the U.S. Western District of Washington issued a 52-page decision finding DSHS officials breached a settlement agreement known as “Trueblood.” That agreement established time frames for people in jail to get services at state psychiatric facilities, according to The Seattle Times. The “Trueblood” settlement outlined that defendants who were incompetent to stand trial would be evaluated within 14 days and, if needed, start receiving treatment services within seven days after that.

But DSHS has failed to meet those timelines, according to Pechman’s decision. As of April, people who qualified for treatment were waiting an average of 130 days before they could receive services at a state facility.

DSHS, facing a $100 million fine after failing to follow the “Trueblood” settlement, claimed that its refusal to follow state law with conversion patients is the fault of the federal court, the legal body that instituted the $100 million fine.

Washington purchased the recently shuttered Cascade Behavioral Health facility earlier this month, costing approximately $30 million, to combat the statewide shortage of psychiatric treatment options. The $30 million came out of the DSHS’ annual budget.

Judge Schwartz has granted the 22 counties the injunction they petitioned for, ordering DSHS to immediately evaluate anyone whose criminal charges were dismissed after they were found incompetent and non-restorable.

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