SEATTLE — Lawyers for mentally ill criminal defendants want a federal judge to force Washington officials to provide timely mental health services, opposing a delay sought by the state.
The judge ruled last year that the state is violating the constitutional rights of its most vulnerable residents by forcing them to wait in jails for weeks or months before receiving competency evaluations or treatment to restore their ability to assist in their defense during trial.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman gave the state until Jan. 2 to make changes. On Dec. 30, officials asked for more time.
State officials said they have worked diligently toward complying with the order, but demands made by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hampered their efforts.
The agency threatened to cut funding for the state’s largest psychiatric facility, Western State Hospital, four times last year over safety concerns. That facility must fix its safety violations by March 1 or lose millions in federal funds.
Because of that, the state asked the judge to move the deadline to provide competency services to May 27.
Gov. Jay Inslee said in his State of the State address that the mental health crisis resulted from “devastating cuts to services” made during the recession. He said the state continues “to be hobbled by those cuts,” but his budget plan adds funds for new facilities, additional staff and more psychiatrists.
“Our aim is simple: timely access to high-quality treatment in the appropriate setting,” Inslee said. “We’ve all known someone struggling with mental illness. Let’s get this done for them this year.”
His comments came after attorneys for the mentally ill defendants filed a motion late Monday in U.S. District Court saying the state’s request for a delay should be denied. They asked the judge to “act to prevent further floundering” by Washington officials.
The motion said the state Department of Social and Health Services has refused to adhere to recommendations from a court-appointed monitor that would have eased the delays. The wait times for competency evaluations and restoration services have increased since the judge’s ruling, the lawyers said.
The average number of days people had to wait to have an evaluation at Eastern State Hospital was 41 days in March 2015 and now stands at 86 days, the motion said. At Western State Hospital, the average wait time for evaluations went down over the past year, but the wait times for restoration treatment increased from 29 days to 36, the motion said.
The state’s failure to comply has had dire consequences, the attorneys said.