Washington state, like many other states in the US, has a serious mental health crisis. Prisoners who should be given an assessment of their competency are instead left to languish in prison for months on end. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, though the most notable ones are the fact that mental health facilities are woefully underfunded, as well as mismanagement by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services over several years.
Despite this problem has been going on for a long time in Washington’s prisons, it is not something that’s only just now been discovered. In fact, back in 2014, a lawsuit was filed – Trueblood v. DSHS – where it was argued that the long wait times violated the constitutionally guaranteed due process rights. This case lasted until 2018 when a settlement agreement was reached.
The agreement required that the state get anyone who may be deemed as legally incompetent to stand trial an evaluation within 14 days. If deemed unfit by this evaluation, they would be given restorative services meant to help them get the services they need within seven days after the assessment is complete. If they fail, fines will be imposed, which can come in the form of money put into mental health services and compensatory damages. Despite this settlement, approximately only half of those eligible get assessed on time.
These wait times can create two common outcomes: people don’t get their necessary due process, or judges dismiss the case. While not everyone who is in need of evaluation is dangerous, enough of them that it becomes an issue that some serious cases may go unprosecuted. As far as wait times go, some people have been waiting so long that they spent more time waiting than they would if they pleaded guilty and served their sentence.
The state argued that COVID caused them issues. However, the problem existed before 2020, which makes it impossible for that to be the main reason. Ultimately, it begs the question whether the state will eventually fix these issues, or if they will simply kick the can down the road and continue incurring fines. What’s unfortunate is the fact that mental health is so poorly understood by so many, and thus, those who suffer from mental illness struggle to get the help they need.