If the state DSHS knows it must do a better job of evaluating the mentally ill, why is the agency going to trial over the matter?

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A STRANGE, unnecessary and expensive trial is playing out this week in federal court in Seattle over a particularly dark corner of Washington state’s beleaguered mental-health system.

On one side are class-action plaintiffs’ attorneys, representing defendants held on criminal charges whose competency to stand trial is in question.

Under state law, these defendants should be evaluated within a week. If they’re found to be too mentally ill to understand what’s going on, they should be quickly treated. But Western State Hospital is usually too full. Instead, they wait in county jails, sometimes for months, often in solitary confinement, getting sicker, all before they can even stand trial.

On the other side is a team from the state Attorney General’s Office. In court filings, the lawyers acknowledges how the trial will probably end: U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman will order Washington to fix its broken mental competency system.

What the two sides are mostly arguing about is how long is too long to wait for a mental-health evaluation. The state Department of Social and Health Services reported waiting lists as long as 174 days, just to get an evaluation for competency.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys, led by the watchdog group Disability Rights Washington, say any wait longer than seven days is indefensible. Pechman, in an earlier order, seemed to agree. DSHS attorneys want a 14-day deadline.

Seattle Times illustration
Seattle Times illustration

Does that seem like an issue worth the steep cost of having four state attorneys in trial mode for weeks?

Ending these appalling waiting lists will cost millions of dollars, but the Legislature has already started chipping away, passing a supplemental budget with an $8.6 million boost for state psychiatric hospitals.

This trial fits a recent pattern of intransigence under DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley, who has now been in the job more than two years. State and federal courts over the past year have mandated better services to foster kids and people with mental illness, even as the agency litigated against the reforms.

If this current case is a stall tactic, it mostly hurts the people DSHS is supposed to help.

Among them is a 28-year-old man, identified in court documents by his initials K.R., who spent 97 days in the Thurston County jail waiting to have his competency restored at Western State Hospital.

K.R. had been arrested for flicking a cigarette at a police officer while he was delusional and agitated. During the three months in jail, he lost weight, was assaulted by a cell mate and became sicker. His mother said he had stopped showering, couldn’t hold a conversation and saw things. “He was psychologically in the worst shape I’d seen him.”

With no significant criminal history, K.R. would most likely have spent far less time in jail had he just pleaded guilty. Instead, he waited in the limbo of jail, as his mom described in emotional testimony.

It would have been good for Quigley to hear her story. He wasn’t in court as the trial opened Monday.