Ninth Circuit Tweaks Washington Jail Reforms

     (CN) — The Ninth Circuit called jail “no substitute” for mental health treatment Friday but chucked a seven-day window in Washington state for the evaluation of a detainee’s competency to stand trial.
     U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman had established that weeklong timeframe last year to address what she called a pattern of the Evergreen State trampling the constitutional rights of “some of its most vulnerable citizens.”
     “Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services,” Pechman wrote. “Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates.”
     A Ninth Circuit panel in Seattle did not dispute that premise Friday.
     “It is well recognized that detention in a jail is no substitute for mentally ill detainees who need therapeutic evaluation and treatment,” Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
     In fact, Washington state’s agencies and officials targeted their appeal to give themselves more breathing room to correct the problem.
     The Ninth Circuit agreed with the state today that Pechman’s solution created “a temporal obligation beyond what the Constitution requires.”
     The advocacy groups that pursued the case applauded the circuit for leaving the crux of the underlying reforms in place.
     “This is an important ruling because people with mental illness suffer real harms when they are warehoused in jail waiting for court-ordered services,” Disability Rights Washington’s staff attorney Emily Cooper said in a statement.
     Pechman must now determine a new standard for a “reasonable” grace period, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington says any number that she comes up with will represent a victory.
     “Whether the ultimate ruling is 7 days or 14 days, it will clearly be a tremendous improvement from the weeks and months that some individuals had been waiting in jail for evaluations when the suit was filed,” its attorney La Rond Baker said in a statement.
     In a 21-page opinion, the court describes how Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services became inundated with growing demands for competency evaluations in its pre-trial jails.
     Friday’s ruling says the Washington Department of Social and Health Services “has faced considerable challenges — both legal and practical — in administering timely competency evaluation and restoration services to pretrial detainees in city and county facilities.”
     Between 2001 and 2011, Washington state saw an 82 percent increase in demands for evaluations, but the court said the state was plagued by staffing shortages, poor data, delayed reporting and other problems.
     Cassie Cordell Trueblood, a criminal defense attorney who led the class action on behalf of a then-27-year-old found to have been “gravely disabled,” said the state tossed disabled inmates who had not been convicted of a crime to solitary confinement, leading many to suicidal behavior and self-harm.
     After a bench trial, Judge Pechman “detailed Washington’s shortcomings in providing competency evaluation and restoration services, the insufficient number of beds and personnel as a result of inadequate funding and planning, and the deleterious effects of prolonged incarceration without evaluation and treatment for mentally ill detainees,” according to the ruling.
     Since “Washington has thus far failed to comply with its own target goals,” the circuit said, “a permanent injunction remains an appropriate vehicle for monitoring and ensuring that class members’ constitutional rights are protected.”
     Still, Pechman applied the wrong standard, according to the ruling. The federal judge found Washington capable of complying with her order, but she should instead have paid attention to “the constitutional parameters of the remedy,” McKeown wrote.
     “In light of the 14th Amendment’s due process reasonableness framework, the district court abused its discretion when it concluded that seven days was the ‘maximum justifiable period’ primarily because it was feasible for [the state] to conduct evaluations within seven days in the vast majority of cases,” the opinion states.
     A press officer for Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

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