Wait times for mental health services in WA jails worsen as fines spiral
Nov. 6, 2022 at 6:00 am Updated Nov. 6, 2022 at 1:33 pm
Seattle Times Mental Health Project reporter
The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.
GRAYS HARBOR COUNTY — Monday afternoon would typically be quiet in the seaside town of Ocean Shores. Instead, in January of this year, police officers had been dispatched to a local grocery store twice within an hour because of Joshua Marsh.
Marsh, 40, was barefoot and without a coat in the middle of winter. The store manager thought he was inebriated and asked him to leave but he refused, according to an Ocean Shores police report. Officers issued him a trespass notice and noted Marsh’s conversation was “nonsensical.” Police were called again after Marsh was found climbing onto a semitruck parked outside.
By that evening, Marsh was booked into Grays Harbor County Jail, accused of assaulting officers. He would spend eight months there, waiting to be transferred to a state psychiatric hospital for mental health services.
“They forgot about me pretty much,” said Marsh, speaking by phone from Western State Hospital, where he was ultimately moved in late September.
Marsh, who still has yet to face trial, is one of hundreds of defendants across Washington state who remain in a legal limbo, jailed while waiting for a psychiatric bed as state hospital wait times balloon in violation of a federal court settlement.
Four years after that settlement, referred to as the Trueblood case, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services — the state agency in charge of getting people into mental health services — is still struggling to meet required time frames. In fact, wait times are getting worse, costing hundreds of people in jails, and their loved ones, weeks or months of their lives. The settlement includes fines, so the failure also has cost Washington taxpayers an estimated $98 million since 2018.
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To take someone charged with a crime to trial, the defendant first has to understand why they are being tried. If they don’t understand their charges or can’t assist their attorney, they are evaluated by a mental health professional and usually found incompetent.
People in crisis or with a history of mental illness often fall into this category — and that means the court can’t start a trial, let alone issue a verdict.
Instead a judge will order the defendant to be “restored.” And once the person is found competent — which usually takes anywhere from 29 to 90 days — they can stand trial.
But for years, people would sit in jail, unable to get into a state hospital for these restoration services, and their cases would stall. Advocates argued this violated defendants’ constitutional due-process rights in what became the class action federal lawsuit known as Trueblood v. DSHS in 2014.
Ultimately, a settlement in 2018 laid out deadlines for the state to act: Defendants who were potentially incompetent to stand trial would be evaluated within 14 days, and if necessary receive “restoration services” — usually involving a transfer to a state hospital like Western State, medication and educational services — within seven days after that.
If state officials failed, DSHS would be fined. Money from the settlement would then go to funding diversion programs and triage centers where people in crisis could be dropped off by law enforcement rather than taken to jail.
Currently, an estimated 870 people, in and out of jail, are waiting for these competency and restoration services in Washington state.
Only about half of defendants get a competency evaluation on time, the latest October report from DSHS shows.
The data also found that people in jails across Washington were waiting an average of nearly 78 days to get restoration services at a state facility. Fewer than 10% of defendants received services within the mandated time frame.