State woefully underfunds mental health

Several courts have ruled that the Washington state Legislature is not adequately funding basic education, mental health programs and removal of culverts that block migrating salmon. The state Supreme Court went so far as to find the Legislature in contempt on K-12 education funding.

Now lower courts are also issuing contempt orders and fines – now over $100,000 -- because mentally ill people are being held for unreasonably long periods in county jails awaiting competency evaluations and treatment.

When defendants are too mentally ill to assist in their defense, they are deemed incompetent to stand trial. Judges routinely order competency evaluations or treatment to restore their competency.

But due to a shortage of beds at both of the state’s psychiatric hospitals, judges face the difficult decision of keeping these defendants in jail or releasing them back to the streets.

Pierce County Superior Court judges, and some in King County, have ruled that keeping people suffering from mental illness locked up is a violation of their Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

There is ample evidence that locking up people with chronic or acute mental illness – especially in solitary confinement – exacerbates their condition. This is clearly a humanitarian crisis.

No Thurston County judges have issued a contempt order. But in at least one motion brought to a Thurston Superior Court, a mentally ill defendant was released back into the community while waiting for a competency evaluation. That creates a danger for him and for other people.

In a federal lawsuit, scheduled for trial in March, a U.S. District Court will hear the case of several mentally ill inmates who have waited more than three months in solitary confinement for competency evaluations. The lawsuit also says inmates who have been found incompetent are waiting just as long for treatment beds at Western State or Eastern State hospitals.

This is the same problem that led to a separate Supreme Court order last summer, in which the Court ruled that keeping people waiting for treatment for their mental illness strapped down in hospital emergency room beds violated their civil rights.

All of these cases point out an indisputable fact: the state Legislature has not provided adequate funding for mental health programs.

In a bewildering action this year, the Legislature approved funds to operate three new 16-bed Evaluation and Treatment centers, including one to serve Thurston and Mason counties. But they didn’t pass a capital budget to build the facilities.

It’s shameful. The state of Washington ranks 47th among the 50 states in access to psychiatric care.

Of course, the blame reaches beyond the state Legislature. The ultimate responsibility rests with the federal government. Forty years ago it deinstitutionalized mental health care, closed too many psychiatric hospitals, and has never supplied sufficient funding to provide community-based treatment.

It’s cruel to send people in crisis back onto the streets without treatment. It’s worse to lock them up in overcrowded jails, isolate them in solitary confinement, or strap them down in emergency rooms.

State lawmakers must take action in the 2015 session before a federal judge slaps them with yet another court order. And this time, they should solve the problem, not just settle for halfway measures.