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‘Warehousing’ mentally ill defendants should decrease under bill passed Monday, lawmakers say

A bill to prevent mentally ill people facing criminal charges from being warehoused in jail as they await treatment to become competent to stand trial won unanimous approval Monday in the state House.

SB 5444 would expand the number of offenses for which law enforcement can move a mentally ill person out of the criminal justice system and into treatment, allows courts to consider outpatient competency restoration for misdemeanors and some felonies and creates the job of “forensic navigator” to help criminal defendants with mental health issues find resources so they can recover.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, would make several changes based on last year’s legal settlement of the Trueblood lawsuit between a nonprofit advocacy group, Disability Rights Washington, and the state. The 2014 lawsuit is named after attorney Cassie Trueblood, who originally filed a suit over competency services on behalf of a client.

In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman ruled in favor of a class of criminal defendants suffering from mental illness who were held in county jails as they waited to be evaluated to determine if they could assist in their defense. Many of the defendants had to wait for weeks or months to get into either Western State Hospital in Lakewood or Eastern State Hospital near Spokane.

Rep. Laurie Jinkins, the Tacoma Democrat who sponsored the House companion bill, said the Trueblood decision found the state was not fairly treating people who were arrested for a crime but might not be competent to stand trial because of mental illness.

Jinkins said a major change in the bill is the state is moving toward evaluating competency to stand trial and providing treatment for mentally ill defendants in outpatient settings.

“We have been spending most of our money and time and energy taking anyone who was not competent to stand trial and getting them into inpatient competency restoration. We were backed-up and delayed — both in terms of getting people competency evaluations but also then restoring them to competency,” she said.

The bill also creates the position of “forensic navigator.” They would be state Department of Social and Health Services employees or people contracted to work for the state agency. Their job would include helping defendants get outpatient restoration services and other community resources, such as housing assistance.

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, noted that the bill would allow law enforcement officers to divert more people who have a track record in the mental health system to an outpatient facility instead of housing them in jail.

“More people are going to get the services that they need for behavioral health and that is a good thing,” Schmick said.

The House amended the bill Monday to make it more precise about what happens when a person gets services in an outpatient facility to restore their competency to stand trial, the treatment is not successful, and then they must move into an inpatient facility.

The amendment delineates how much time the court can order defendants to go into inpatient restoration after having been in an outpatient setting, Jinkins said. For felonies, that would be 45-90 days of inpatient competency restoration depending on the charge and up to 29 days for certain misdemeanors.

Some Republicans asserted the amendment was “overly prescriptive,” preventing judges from tailoring the time line to the offender.

“I don’t like the idea of the Legislature taking out of the hands of the judge how much time they can order someone to restorative treatment,” said Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick.

The House approved the amendment on a voice vote and then passed the bill 97-0.

SB 5444 returns to the Senate for agreement with House amendments. If the Senate concurs, the bill moves to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

House and Senate budget writers are negotiating the upcoming 2019-2021 operating budget and among the items is how much the state will spend on complying with the Trueblood settlement.

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