Sunday, June 13, 2021
June 13, 2021

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Clark County eyes expert panel to evaluate ill defendants


Judges hold state in contempt for long jail waits for mentally ill

Clark County may become the second county in the state to use a panel of local experts to evaluate mentally ill defendants, rather than ask the state hospital to perform competency evaluations, local officials said.

The move is intended to complete the evaluations within a timely manner and protect defendants from being held indefinitely in jail without treatment.

“I think it’s a very positive thing that we are moving forward on this,” said Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik. “It’s frustrating that Western State (Hospital) takes significantly longer than it should to do competency evaluations.”

Until 2012, these competency evaluations — which are used to determine whether defendants are mentally fit to stand trial — were the purview of the Department of Social and Health Services. Western State Hospital is responsible for conducting competency evaluations for counties on the western side of the state, including Clark County.

However, the health services agency’s personnel and funding limitations often cause delays in completing the evaluations within the mandatory seven-day period, local attorneys said.

The delays have prompted some judges in the state to hold the state health services agency in contempt of court. The Columbian found no reports of that happening in Clark County.

“It’s important … that we don’t have people just languishing in jail waiting for an evaluation,” Golik said. “It’s important for the criminal justice system as a whole that if you have somebody impacted by mental illness, we get an evaluation quickly to find out what level the mental illness is so we can react appropriately.”

A law that went into effect in May 2012 allowed some counties to receive state reimbursement for competency evaluations conducted by private local experts.

Counties in which more than 50 percent of competency evaluations have taken more than seven days to complete are eligible for the reimbursement. Pierce County was the first to form such a panel, and the result has been positive, Golik said.

“We are glad the Legislature took action to allow this panel of local experts,” he said.

As required by the law, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the local defense bar have been involved in selecting the experts for a local panel, he said.

Officials said they hope to have the panel in place by January. The panel will have about six experts, though an exact number hasn’t been finalized, Golik said.

Each competency evaluation costs about $800, he said.

Golik said he is concerned that once the panels are in place, the Legislature could choose to cut the reimbursement program, leaving counties to pick up the bill. However, he said he agrees with local judges and defense attorneys about the need for the reimbursement program.

“Hopefully, the Legislature will realize this is something the Legislature should not cut,” he said. “Timely competency evaluations are something we need in the criminal justice system.”