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Rights group, state reach settlement in competency lawsuit

August 17, 2018

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2005 file photo Washington state prisons Lt. Clan Jacobs walks through a block of cells at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Wash. Three years after a federal judge said Washington state was violating the rights of mentally ill people warehoused in jails while they wait for competency services, the state has agreed to a plan to fix the problem. A settlement reached Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, between Disability Rights Washington and the Department of Social and Health Services is designed to bring the state into compliance with the judge's order and end the contempt fines the state has been paying for years. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

SEATTLE (AP) — The state of Washington has agreed to a plan to resolve a lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill people who’ve been warehoused in jails for weeks or months while awaiting competency services.

A settlement reached Thursday between Disability Rights Washington and the Department of Social and Health Services is designed to bring the state into compliance with a judge’s 2015 ruling that said the state was violating the rights of its most vulnerable citizens. The plan also will end the contempt fines the state has been paying for years. So far, those fines have topped $60 million and average $3 million to $4 million each month.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman must approve the settlement before it gets implemented.

“Every day that someone with a serious mental illness sits waiting for help in jail, they get sicker,” said Kimberly Mosolf, attorney for Disability Rights Washington. “This plan will keep people out of jail when mental health treatment and community supports are more appropriate, and it will get people with mental illness who are currently in jail into community settings where appropriate.”

DSHS Secretary Cheryl Strange said the settlement “lays out a comprehensive plan to reform the way we treat individuals with a mental illness who interact with our criminal justice system.

“We are excited to support our partners who deliver law enforcement, court, and community-based mental health services,” Strange said in an email to The Associated Press.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014, sought relief for criminal defendants who were languishing for months in county jails while waiting to be evaluated to see if they were competent to help in their defense. When many of the defendants were found incompetent, they had to wait weeks or months before being taken to a state-run mental hospital for treatment. The suit claimed the state was violating their constitutional rights.

Even though Pechman found in the group’s favor in 2015, many are still waiting for competency services.

The two sides joined with others to devise a plan to get the state into compliance. Participants included family members, lawmakers, behavioral health organizations, law enforcement agencies, jails and courts.

“This settlement reflects the ideas of those people closest to the problems and most knowledgeable about what it will take to fix those problems,” said David Carlson with the rights group.

The plan focuses on a number of areas:

—It provides more crisis-response services to communities, including mental health professionals who will work directly with law enforcement.

—It calls for an increase in crisis facilities, more beds in hospitals and more residential support.

—It sets up training for law enforcement and jail staff.

—And it will try to identify people who cycle through the system frequently, so they can receive additional support.

“This is about supporting people in or at risk of crisis with the right service at the right time, in the right place,” said lawyer Christopher Carney. “Anything less is immoral, financially irresponsible, and in the case of our clients, unconstitutional.”

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