Federal Court Orders State to Stop Violating Constitutional Rights of People with Mental Illness in Jail

Release date: 
Thursday, April 2, 2015

For immediate release.

Contacts: Doug Honig, ACLU-WA, 206-624-2184
David Carlson, Disability Rights WA, 206-324-1521
Anita Khandelwal, Public Defender Assn., 206-451-7195
Chris Carney, Carney Gillespie Isitt, 206-992-8171


“Defendants have demonstrated a long history of failing to adequately protect the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and class members, and have acknowledged that this failure is indefensible.”

-          U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman


In a strongly worded opinion, the U.S. District Court in Seattle today ordered the State of Washington to cease violating constitutional rights and provide timely competency services to pre-trial detainees incarcerated in jails. The ruling came in the remedy phase of a lawsuit (A.B. v. DSHS) filed on behalf of individuals with mental illness who have been warehoused in jail for weeks and months while awaiting these court-ordered services.

The court ruled on December 22, 2014 that persistent delays in providing the services to people in state criminal cases violates their constitutional due process rights. The court today ordered the State to provide in-jail competency evaluations within seven days of the signing of a court order calling for an evaluation. And it must admit persons ordered to receive competency restoration services into a state hospital within seven days of a court order calling for the services.

The Court noted that, “Defendants have demonstrated a consistent pattern of intentionally disregarding court orders … and have established a de facto policy of ignoring court orders which conflict with their internal policies.” Accordingly, so as to ensure compliance with the order, the Court will appoint a monitor to oversee its implementation.

“The Court has made it crystal clear that the state cannot deny basic human rights to mentally ill people in jail. And the government cannot keep ignoring the Constitution and subjecting pre-trial detainees ordered to receive competency services to prolonged incarceration in city and county jails,” said La Rond Baker of the ACLU of Washington.

“Constitutional rights are not subject to available funds.  The state’s excuses that they have lacked funding or resources to provide competency services to vulnerable individuals waiting in jail will no longer be tolerated,” said Emily Cooper of Disability Rights Washington.

“It will be a great relief for defense lawyers to know that they can request competency services and their clients won’t be waiting weeks or months for those services,” said Anita Khandelwal of the Public Defender Association.

“Often people with disabilities who are in local jails receive little or no mental health treatment. They are isolated with no direct human contact, in a cell with no toilet or furniture for 23-24 hours a day, and all while the symptoms of their disabilities get worse. Every human being deserves better,” said Chris Carney of Carney Gillespie Isitt PLLP.

Under state law, whenever there is reason to doubt that an individual with mental disabilities is competent to stand trial, the trial court is to order an evaluation to determine their competency. The law charges Eastern State Hospital (ESH) and Western State Hospital (WSH) with evaluating and treating these individuals. If their competency is restored, their criminal cases may proceed; if it is not restored, the criminal charges are dismissed. During the evaluation and restoration periods, speedy trial rights are automatically waived, and the criminal proceedings are stayed.

Unfortunately, the state has failed to perform these services on a timely basis. Stays of criminal proceedings pending evaluation and restoration of competency often last for months. As a result, individuals with mental health disabilities have languished in city and county jails without appropriate mental health treatment while awaiting transport to ESH or WSH.

Warehousing these vulnerable people in jail is harmful. The delays cause individuals to experience needless deterioration in their mental health as they sit in jails – frequently in solitary confinement for 22 to 23 hours a day – for weeks and months on end. Jail disciplinary systems can further exacerbate mental health conditions. People often end up spending more time waiting in jail than they would if they had pleaded guilty.

Handling the case for the plaintiffs are Disability Rights Washington attorneys Emily Cooper and David Carlson, ACLU of Washington attorneys La Rond Baker and Margaret Chen, Public Defender Association attorney Anita Khandewal, and attorney Chris Carney of Carney Gillespie Isitt PLLP.

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