The ongoing public safety and treatment troubles at Western State Hospital have tagged along with the new year.
As recounted in grim detail by Tacoma News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson, authorities at the state-run facility were preparing to release an accused murderer to an adult family home last fall in spite of four mental-health evaluations that have said the man was dangerous.
An outcry by Lakewood-area legislators spurred by Pierce County officials helped stop the placement.
It would be comforting to see this as just another slip as our state continues to come to grips with a mental health system that frayed for years until 2015. But it appears that authorities at the hospital and the state Attorney General’s Office failed to take full advantage of a law amended in 2013 to avoid this very kind of release of dangerous patients from lock-up.
Our state Legislature, which opens a 60-day session next Monday, has no choice but to wade back into these ongoing problems.
Lawmakers should look closely at the risks and benefits of clarifying the 2013 law, which came after a deadly hatchet attack in Pierce County by a man released by the hospital to his father’s home.
It is possible the 2013 law changes were not enough for decision-makers. There may be too little weight given to public safety in a hospital or medical setting.
Also, whether by accident or design, the governor’s Public Safety Review Panel was not given a chance to review this case.
The seven-member panel, when requested, can review or assess the pending release of patients who are deemed incompetent to stand trial and who have violent histories.
Amendments to the state Involuntary Treatment Act passed in 2013 let the state hold certain violent patients or offenders for longer period of time using a special finding. Those changes affected only a small population — roughly 20 people deemed very likely to re-offend.
In a 7-2 decision the state Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the amended ITA was constitutional.
Errors in releasing dangerous patients can be costly. In the 2012 case that gave rise to the 2013 legislation, the state paid $2.9 million to settle a legal claim brought by the spouse of the man killed by Jonathan Meline. Meline had been found incompetent to stand trial after prosecutors filed criminal charges against him; he then killed his father.
There always are legitimate civil rights concerns that must be considered in cases like these. But the reason we have forensic hospitals like Western State and Eastern State is to ensure that people too sick to stand trial are treated and that public safety is protected.
Similarly that is why the state’s civil commitment law for sex offenders was written so carefully to keep the worst sex predators — who can be held while the state treats them medically in a bid to render them safe for release — in custody.
The troubles at Western State go beyond a few bad decisions. The institution has been buffeted by both an influx of patients and longtime staffing shortages.
In response to those concerns, the Legislature put more than $180 million in their 2017-19 budget for staffing and other improvements to care, which is considered deficient at Western State. That was less than Gov. Jay Inslee sought, and the governor is asking for another $20 million to add 100 staffers for treatment and safety improvements at Western.
Inslee also is asking for $93 million more to care for patients referred to Western or Eastern state hospitals and $10.1 million for 53 more staff in Western’s forensic unit that would let it add 45 new beds. Other requested funds would add 18 staff to allow timely competency evaluations in the Office of Forensic Mental Health Services.
Inslee’s actions are part of a longer strategy to keep the state from losing its federal Medicaid funding at the facility due to deficient care.
But as Robinson’s news report shows, this is not all about money — or just about Pierce County.
Patient confidentiality kept officials from the AG’s Office and state Department of Social and Health Services from sharing details publicly about the most recent case. But records show the hospital wanted to release Lawrence David Butterfield, a 62-year-old paranoid schizophrenic with a long history of violent actions and involuntary commitments that date to the 1970s. In 2010, Butterfield was charged with murder and recharged in 2014 and 2017.
Though authorities at one point sought to detain Butterfield under a special court finding, they did not try that after an evaluation in 2017 showed he was still dangerous.
The public deserves an explanation. Our state must do better.