Five years ago, Gov. Jay Inslee and a group of state lawmakers stood in front of Western State Hospital in Lakewood and presented an “aggressive … but doable” plan to transform the state’s mental health system by 2023. They haven’t delivered, as a new lawsuit by 22 counties and the state association of counties painfully — and shamefully — reminds Washingtonians.
The counties, which include King and other Puget Sound counties, are suing the Washington Department of Social and Health Services for failure to provide adequate mental health services to people who were initially jailed on criminal charges but found incompetent to stand trial.
DSHS officials say they simply don’t have enough beds. That’s in part because a recent federal court order forces them to prioritize housing criminal defendants who are still awaiting mental health services. The court order, accompanied by a $100 million fine, stems from the state’s failure to meet treatment deadlines set by an earlier legal settlement.
The bed shortage means that many inmates charged with felonies but ultimately deemed incompetent to stand trial are released back into communities without receiving the help they need. An estimated 45 troubled people in King County were to be released in a two-week span last month. King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion rightfully calls those releases “a dereliction of duty by DSHS.”
But the dereliction of duty also extends to Inslee and the Legislature — not to mention a generation or two of leaders before them who failed repeatedly to heed calls to fix Washington’s woefully inadequate mental health services.
The state has failed in both its responsibility to help individuals suffering from mental health problems and to protect public safety.
Localities have tried to pick up some of the burden. This spring, King County voters approved a measure to raise property taxes to pay for construction of five crisis care centers. The increase is expected to raise $1.25 billion over the next nine years, but that’s just a start. More is needed.
State officials, meanwhile, point out that they’ve put an extra $2 billion into competency services statewide since 2015 — as if that’s a sufficient response to a crisis that’s devolved to the point that people with mentally illness are being released into communities without help.
It’s commendable that voters in King County rose to the challenge, despite a difficult economy. The governor and Legislature need to do the same and allocate resources that will help troubled people and keep communities safe.