New practice meant to lighten backlog of mentally ill inmates in jails

Staff writerSeptember 1, 2013 

Pierce County appears to be the first in the state to take advantage of a new law meant to help keep inmates with mental illnesses from languishing in jails.

It can take weeks for short-staffed Western State Hospital to determine whether an inmate is competent to stand trial. State lawmakers this year authorized the work to be turned over to independent experts when state hospital staff aren’t finishing the evaluations quickly enough.

Pierce County has contracted out for two evaluations, choosing from a list of eight psychologists approved by prosecutors and defense attorneys. The experts receive $800 per evaluation, the amount state government has decided to reimburse.

It’s an attempt to solve a costly problem for the county jail and a potentially harmful one for the people who are stranded there, often with severe symptoms and liable to deteriorate further in the confines of a cell.

It’s “a heartbreak,” said Judy Snow, mental health manager at the jail. “We see individuals that are smearing feces, hearing voices, banging on the door, very paranoid … refusing to eat or take fluids because they feel that it’s poison.”

The backlog at Western State Hospital has been decreasing but remains a problem. On Aug. 16, for example, 28 inmates had been waiting more than a week in jail for an evaluation, according to the Department of Social and Health Services.

In Pierce County, Snow said inmates waited an average of 23 days for an evaluation in the first half of this year.

But in two cases over the past two weeks, the state contracted the work to independent psychologists, both former Western State Hospital evaluators. Snow said one took four days, the other five days.

Snow and county Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said they expect more contract evaluations as attorneys learn about the process. And other counties will likely follow Pierce’s lead, said Brian Enslow of the Washington State Association of Counties.

Twenty-seven of the state’s 39 counties, including Thurston and King, are eligible to use contract evaluators, based on wait times recorded in April, May and June. The new law allows the contracts in counties where evaluations took longer than a week for half of all inmates in the most recent quarter of the year.

The union that represents many Western State workers is raising concerns. The Washington Federation of State Employees says it has filed a formal demand to bargain on the details of how the work will be done and how to deal with the backlog of cases.

“We have a right to suggest alternative ways to do the work,” federation spokesman Tim Welch said.

The backlog of evaluations is widely blamed on turnover. Snow said Western State evaluators have left to take jobs at Madigan Army Medical Center and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The law, a temporary measure that expires after three years, was proposed by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, and passed the Legislature with just one dissenting vote. It was aimed at helping whittle down the backlog. Wait times statewide could be reduced even if other counties don’t follow Pierce’s lead, Enslow noted.

“One, it takes some of the load off” Western State, Lindquist said, “and two, the competition encourages them to expedite evaluations on their side.”

Jane Beyer, a DSHS assistant secretary, said Western State has been working to keep vacancies filled and to make evaluators more productive – “to just be as efficient as we can,” Beyer said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@

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