Rep. Jim Walsh issues statement on counties’ lawsuit over DSHS’s failure to help defendants with severe mental illnesses

Last week, 22 Washington state counties filed a lawsuit against the Gov. Inslee administration’s state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) over the agency’s decision to stop evaluating and treating criminal defendants with mental illnesses, who have their charges dropped because they don’t understand the charges against them.

According to state law, if DSHS fails to provide adequate medical treatment or does not restore a criminal defendant to competency, prosecutors could dismiss the charges against the defendant and try to get that person’s treatment through the civil side of the judicial system. The dismissal of charges makes the person a ‘civil conversion patient.’

Having reviewed the counties’ lawsuit, Rep. Jim WalshR-Aberdeen, issued the following statement:

“The counties’ lawsuit underscores the dangers created by administrative bureaucrats. DSHS’s refusal to perform its legal duty to evaluate civil conversion patients deprives these patients of care they are statutorily entitled to, precludes any evaluation of whether the patients are likely to recommit potentially serious and violent offenses because of a mental health disorder, and risks returning these individuals to communities where they may pose a risk to themselves and others.

“The people of Washington state have suffered through these bureaucratic failures and incompetencies for too long. We’re living with the consequences: rampant drug abuse, inhumane treatment of people with mental illnesses, and violent crime rising in our neighborhoods, all around the state. People who are too mentally ill to stand trial for their criminal actions shouldn’t be turned out into the streets. They should be in Western State Hospital.”

Currently, incompetent criminal defendants in Washington state wait about seven months before getting treatment at one of the state’s mental hospitals. State law and federal court orders call for a maximum wait time of seven days.

The counties want a judge to order the state to take responsibility for civil conversion patients — who come to a hospital from jail, but fail to regain legal competency — and notify local officials when releasing such patients from the state hospitals.

In their lawsuit, the counties argue denying mental health care to people whose charges have been dropped:

  • violates state law on restoration of competence for criminal defendants (RCW 10.77.088);
  • puts an untenable strain on county resources; and
  • puts public safety at risk.

DSHS plans to release approximately 200 civil conversion patients statewide — with at least 45 in King County alone — by Sept. 7, with little formal notice given to local authorities. One King County attorney referred to DSHS’s plan as a “fire sale release.” The soonest the counties’ lawsuit will go before a judge is Sept. 8.

Walsh’s statement continued:

“When charges are dropped against a criminal defendant who’s been found by the courts to be mentally incompetent, and the state won’t give that person mental health care at a psychiatric facility like Western State Hospital, the governor’s bureaucrats just send the person back to the streets. That’s what this latest lawsuit is about. Because DSHS has mismanaged Western State Hospital so badly, there’s no room left in that institution. And people with mental illnesses are being released while they’re still sick.

“This latest lawsuit is separate from the older and higher-profile Trueblood v. DSHS case. But the two lawsuits are connected. A few months ago, the federal judge hearing the Trueblood case found the Inslee Administration and DSHS in contempt and ordered them to pay more than $100 million in fines for failing to provide timely psychiatric services to people with mental illnesses who are forced to wait in jail. Now, the governor’s administration is blaming that $100 million fine for its own ongoing failures. Specifically, one of its spokespeople has said in response to questions about the more recent lawsuit from the counties, that the ‘federal court has substantially impaired our ability to treat and care for [civil conversion] patients such as these.’ This kind of finger-pointing is disappointing, but all too familiar. With the current governor, his administration’s failures are always someone else’s fault.

“The Trueblood case and the more recent lawsuit from the 22 county prosecutors are the first steps in a reckoning. We need better state laws and public policy. We need better results out of Olympia and D.C. We need a return to common sense in our beautiful state.”

The counties whose prosecutors have joined the recent lawsuit include: Asotin, Clallam, Cowlitz, Douglas, Grant, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Klickitat, Lewis, Lincoln, Pacific, Pierce, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Whatcom, and Yakima counties.

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Washington State House Republican Communications
houserepublicans.wa.gov