Pin It

In Contempt 

A Spokane judge rules that the mental health system has willfully failed to follow evaluation deadlines

click to enlarge CHRIS BOVEY
  • Chris Bovey

Challenging the state's mental health priorities, a Spokane County judge last week issued the first contempt of court ruling against an Eastern Washington psychiatric hospital for failing to conduct timely evaluations of several jailed defendants awaiting trial, fining the hospital $200 a day for the delays.

Judge Salvatore Cozza ruled Friday that Eastern State Hospital had willfully violated multiple orders by not conducting competency evaluations, or even scheduling them, within court-established deadlines. Cozza notes that several Seattle-area courts have issued similar rulings as backlogs have increased.

"We are clearly in a situation where individuals are languishing [in jail] way too long," he says. "Their cases are getting backed up and we really are getting into an intolerable situation."

State law calls for jailed defendants to undergo mental health evaluations within seven days, but wait times often average more than a month. Cozza faults state lawmakers and administrators for setting such deadlines without the staffing and budgetary support to meet them, leaving defendants caught in limbo.

"There have been conscious decisions ... that have created this problem," Cozza says. "This is not something that snuck up on decision makers without warning. This has been coming for a long time."

Mental health advocates have repeatedly asked for stronger enforcement of deadlines on competency evaluations. Some defendants have served more time awaiting evaluation than they would face upon conviction of their alleged crimes, upward of six months in some cases.

Department of Social and Health Services officials, who operate the state's two psychiatric hospitals, note that Eastern State Hospital conducts evaluations across 20 counties with just six evaluators. The number of evaluations has also grown each year, from about 460 in 2010 to 625 so far this year.

Assistant Attorney General Andrea Utigard-Borg, representing DSHS, contends that Eastern State did not intentionally violate the court's orders, but could only conduct so many evaluations with the resources available. She says DSHS officials share many of the court's concerns about the increasing wait times.

"The department is aware of this issue, frustrated by it and doing everything that they can to make sure people are receiving evaluations," she tells the judge.

With local evaluators overwhelmed, Cozza says DSHS and state officials have been "putting a Band-Aid on the problem" for too long. Failing to provide sufficient staffing and funding constitutes an "intentional decision-making process" which has undermined the hospital's ability to uphold its responsibilities to its patients and the court.

Cozza issued a contempt finding for five of the six cases before him, noting that the hospital had conducted an evaluation of one defendant since his previous order. The resulting fines against DSHS will likely total more than $15,000, depending on when the rest of the evaluations can be scheduled.

Public defender Kari Reardon, who asked for the contempt findings on behalf of the six defendants, says Eastern State has done little to arrange evaluations for her clients while they have suffered prolonged and unnecessary mental distress behind bars. She hopes the court's ruling will expedite the process.

"These [evaluations] are taking so incredibly long to get done," she says. "These are people that matter and have rights." ♦

  • Pin It

Speaking of Mental Health, State Of Mind

Latest in News

  • Rich Man, Poor Men
  • Rich Man, Poor Men

    Can the wealthiest U.S. president ever help the poorest U.S. citizens?
    • Jan 18, 2017
  • La Résistance
  • La Résistance

    Michael Moore, Congressional Democrats and local progressives: How they are resisting Donald Trump's agenda
    • Jan 18, 2017
  • Must-See TV?
  • Must-See TV?

    Alternatives to the inauguration (and how to make watching more fun if you have to)
    • Jan 18, 2017
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Today | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed
People Rise Up! A Community Invitation to Action

People Rise Up! A Community Invitation to Action @ Community Building

Sat., Jan. 21, 2-5 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

More by Jacob Jones

Most Commented On

  • Thanks, Obama

    The legacy of the 44th President goes far beyond the election of the 45th
    • Dec 29, 2016
  • One Free Shave

    Donald Trump might have merited a honeymoon with voters had he managed his transition better
    • Dec 29, 2016
  • More »

Top Tags in
News & Comment





green zone

Readers also liked…

  • Patrolling While Black
  • Patrolling While Black

    Gordon Grant's nearly 30 years as a Spokane cop have been affected by race, but that's not the whole story
    • Jul 8, 2015
  • Taken to Task
  • Taken to Task

    Environmental groups are split on the viability of collaborating with industry to clean up the Spokane River
    • Jun 3, 2015

© 2017 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation