There are 10 times as many people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons as there are in psychiatric institutions. That needs to change.
Last December, a 49-year-old man was startled awake by a security guard while he napped on a couch at Compass Health, an Everett mental-health clinic.
John, whom I’m not fully naming to protect his privacy, was being treated at the clinic for hallucinations and paranoia, among other problems. Confronted by the female guard, John said vile things, including that he would rape her, and he grabbed her wrist. Cops were called. John was arrested.
I don’t envy the job of prosecutors these days. They see far too many cases involving people with serious mental illness, and they are left with bad choices.
They could look at John’s history and decide not to charge — with no guarantee he would get help in a broken mental-health system. Or they could file a charge, and hope the criminal-justice system would squeeze at least some treatment from that broken system.
Prosecutors can also defer cases to mental-health courts, but that’s only an option if the defendant is deemed mentally competent.
Too often, prosecutors pick option No. 2 and file the charge. That’s why there are 10 times as many people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons as there are in psychiatric institutions, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. The prison at Monroe, for example, is by default the second largest psychiatric facility in Washington.
Even though John had no criminal history, the Snohomish County prosecutor charged him with felony harassment.
Because of fractures in the mental-health system, that path has a disturbing unintended consequence. John sat in jail for two and a half months, mostly in solitary confinement, waiting to get his treatment at Western State Hospital so he could recover enough simply to understand the charges.
Western State was so full that John waited longer just to get in than he likely would have served if he had just pleaded guilty.
And for what? So he could regain minimal functioning, at which point he’ll start the whole criminal process from scratch.
“This process is not making anyone safer,” sighed Cassie Trueblood, John’s public defender in Snohomish County.
Washington state is now having to confront this inhumane morass, thanks to federal Judge Marsha Pechman. She ruled last month that defendants like John must wait no longer than seven days for competency restoration because, as she said, “Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services.”
The ruling has the state in a pickle. With its waitlist, Western State Hospital is nowhere near able to meet Pechman’s seven-day deadline. Last week, 24 of the 28 people like John waited longer than seven days. In a recent report to Pechman’s court, the state put the overall waiting time late last year for such cases at 34.5 days.
There is another way.
Instead of charging John, what if prosecutors could be guaranteed he’d get treatment outside the criminal-justice system? That’s one idea kicking around Olympia right now in response to Pechman’s ruling. And it has support from a key constituency: prosecutors.
“If we get someone into treatment quickly, rather than go through the laborious process of competency restoration, that’s the responsible thing to do,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
Tom McBride, head of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, guessed that maybe 50 percent of nonviolent, non-sex crimes involving mentally ill defendants would get diverted out of the courts — if prosecutors had a guarantee of treatment.
That’s been a huge “if.” But McBride said well-documented failings in the mental-health system galvanized the will of lawmakers.
“This is the first session in the 22 years I’ve been doing this that its been pretty much accepted that we need to put services forward,” said McBride.
The proposal would allow 600 criminal cases to be diverted from courts. Four months of treatment and medication monitoring would be guaranteed, at an annual cost of $2.4 million.
Satterberg estimated that he and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes alone would use 600 slots. If lawmakers spent more on the front end, the state would take a big step toward meeting Pechman’s ruling and maybe even save money.
“If it’s more efficient, more effective, and we can get funding for it, why wouldn’t we use it?” said Satterberg.
John eventually waited so long that a judge finally let him out of jail. He ended up in a hotel, too scared to go back to Compass Health to get regular treatment, Trueblood said.
It wasn’t until the end of March — four months after his arrest — that he finally got into Western State.
Soon, he’ll be back in Everett, and the prosecution of this man with no criminal record will begin.