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Fines to WA: $500K and Counting for Slow Mental Evaluations of Inmates

A federal judge has ordered that Washington state must evaluate the mental competency of inmates in jail within two weeks. (the_kid_cl/flickr)
A federal judge has ordered that Washington state must evaluate the mental competency of inmates in jail within two weeks. (the_kid_cl/flickr)
August 18, 2016

SEATTLE – Washington state owes nearly $500,000 in fines over the last month for failing to provide mental competency evaluations within a week to inmates in jail.

The state has been fined $500 a day for each inmate who waits between 7 and 13 days for an evaluation, and a $1,000 each day after that.

Emily Cooper, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Washington, says the new deadlines for evaluations will greatly improve the lives of inmates with mental illnesses.

Disability Rights Washington was part of the against the state.

"People with mental illness suffer real harm from their warehouse in jail waiting for court-ordered services, and whether it's 7 or 14 days, this is a tremendous improvement from the weeks or months that some of our class members had been waiting in jail for evaluation when the suit was first filed," Cooper states.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman held the state in contempt of court for violating inmates' civil rights by making them wait extended periods of time in jail for evaluations.

This week, Pechman extended the deadline for in-jail evaluations to 14 days.

The state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) says it has made improvements since the federal court decision last year, adding nearly 100 beds to its state hospitals so that more inmates in need of evaluation aren't housed in jails.

Cooper says some of her clients already have been harmed because of long wait periods.

"This is actually something that has kept me awake many a night,” she says. “As lawyers, we think if we go to court and we win, it's going to help our clients. And we won in April 2015 and since then we've had two class members die waiting in jail."

Thomas Kinlen, director of Forensic Mental Health Services at DSHS, is keeping track of the fines. According to Kinlen, DSHS paid nearly $200,000 in fines at the beginning of July.

That money is supposed to go toward funding programs aimed at keeping people with mental illnesses out of the criminal justice system.

Cooper says her organization has had promising conversations with the state about the programs that should be funded.

"It's really been wonderful that for two years we've been in protracted litigation with the state, and as a result of this contempt finding, we're actually sitting around the table with them and trying to come up with actual, concrete solutions and it's been a very respectful, productive conversation," she says.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA