Washington judges have begun holding the state's health services agency in contempt and are ordering sanctions for each day the state fails to provide competency evaluations and treatment for mentally ill people held in county jails.

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Washington judges have begun holding the state’s health services agency in contempt and are ordering sanctions for each day the state fails to provide competency evaluations and treatment for mentally ill people held in county jails.

The sanctions range from $200 to $500 for each day the defendant sits in a cell instead of being treated at one of two psychiatric hospitals. By Wednesday, the fines were approaching $100,000, an Associated Press investigation found.

Other judges are releasing the mentally ill defendants to the streets.

Besides violating a defendant’s constitutional right to due process and a speedy trial, holding them in jail without treatment “may also be a violation of their Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment,” said Pierce County Superior Judge Frank Cuthbertson, who has filed about a dozen orders this year.

“We’ve had clinical staff from the hospital testify in open court and admit that locking people in a jail cell who have a chronic or acute mental illness actually makes them worse,” Cuthbertson said. “It exacerbates their condition.”

He said he knows the state is strapped for money, so contempt orders are not the solution, “but I feel the state has to be compelled to fulfill its constitutional obligation.”

Jane Beyer, an assistant secretary for the Department of Social and Health Services, said she and other officials are aware of the courts’ concerns.

“DSHS agrees that waiting too long in jail is not appropriate and delays the treatment mentally ill people need to assist in their own defense,” Beyer said. “By and large, the courts have recognized that DSHS cannot solve this issue on its own and without additional funding.”

When mentally ill people are charged with crimes but are unable to help in their defense, judges routinely order competency evaluations. If the defendant is found incompetent, judges order treatment to have competency restored.

But a shortage of beds at Western and Eastern state hospitals has resulted in long evaluation wait lists and delays that run up to 60 days, records show.

A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates is set for trial in March. But in the meantime, state judges are responding to the crisis in different ways.

Jason Schwarz, a Snohomish County public defender who represents mentally ill defendants, said their judges know the state is not following his orders, but has declined to hold them in contempt. “Instead, our judges are just releasing our mentally ill clients to the streets,” he said.

Jenna Henderson, a public defender in Olympia, said a Thurston County judge did the same thing for one of her clients. The judge released the defendant while he remained on the competency evaluation wait list.

But judges in King and Pierce counties are issuing orders and fines.

Abbey Perkins, a King County public defender, said earlier this year that judges responded to her motions with contempt orders and sanctions. But when the orders were filed, those particular defendants were moved to the top of the wait lists and transported for treatment.

While the beds fill up, the fines add up.

The AP collected more than a dozen contempt orders dating back to July. Some inmates were moved after 12 days to 27 days and the sanctions stopped. But in other cases, the fines continue.

At the request of the AP, the Attorney General’s office took a tally of contempt orders and found them from three courts. Two orders from King County District Court ordered sanctions of $250 per day, spokeswoman Alison Dempsey-Hall said. After 16 days on the wait list, both cases came to $8,000, she said.

A King County Superior Court order imposed a $500-per-day fine, and the inmate was moved within a day, she said.

But the orders keep coming in from Pierce County, she said.

Four cases in August and two in September totaled $33,000 in sanctions, she said. Nine other cases continue to accrue. She declined to release those orders, but the AP located several. They were filed in October and demand $500 per day for each day the defendant waits in jail. Two reached $10,000 on Wednesday, while others are in the $5,000 range.

Most of the orders require the state to pay the fines to the county jail. Cuthbertson said he did that for a reason.

“Our jail population is exploding because these folks are being held here,” he said. “I believe while they’re here, the state should not be allowed to pass the buck. It should compensate the county while they’re detained.”