Monday, December 15, 2014
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 for each day of delay for each defendant.
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,” Cozza says during the hearing Friday afternoon. “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.
In December of 2013, 25-year-old Amanda Cook killed herself in the Spokane County Jail after waiting several weeks beyond the state deadline for an evaluation.