Bills could trim backlog of mental evaluations


Washington has a 13-month backlog of criminal suspects waiting for a psychologist to evaluate their mental conditions.

As a result, half of all suspects needing an evaluation in November and December didn’t get one within a seven-day standard set earlier in 2012 by the Legislature, according to the Department of Social and Health Services, which does the evaluations.

The delays are stranding people in jails across the state and helping drive escalating costs at the jail in Pierce County, where officials say inmates are waiting an average of 25 days.

County officials are seeking relief in Olympia, asking state lawmakers to let them farm out some of the evaluations to the private sector.

“We have two mental hospitals in Pierce County. One is Western State and the second one is the Pierce County jail,” Al Rose told lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday, using a quip some of them have heard more than once from Rose’s boss, County Executive Pat McCarthy. “On any given day, 80 to 90 people there are on anti-psychotic medication.”

On this side of the Cascades, Western State Hospital psychologists usually perform the evaluations of mentally ill suspects to decide whether they have the ability to understand the charges against them. If not, they can’t stand trial. More than half of the time, the evaluations take place in a jail.

Their numbers have shot up by 82 percent in the past decade, according to a legislative audit released in December, for reasons that were unclear to the auditors. Other states have also seen growing demands for evaluations.

Courts referred more than 3,000 people in 2011, including at least 425 from Pierce County and 123 from Thurston County, the audit found. Most of the defendants are facing charges for low-level crimes such as trespassing or harassment.

The increases have helped create a backlog, and Pierce officials said they believe Western State staff vacancies are contributing to the delays.

While they wait, offenders’ conditions may deteriorate. The advocacy group Disability Rights Washington says mentally ill inmates can be subjected to isolation in small, often windowless cells and have little opportunity for private therapy.

At Tuesday’s hearing in front of the House Appropriations Committee, the group’s director of public policy, David Lord, raised the possibility of the state taking on “liability” if it doesn’t act.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had this issue. Back in 2006, we very nearly came to a lawsuit over this,” Lord said.

PROPOSED SOLUTION

Pierce County is pushing legislation that would let judges assign evaluations to psychologists from the private sector, at the state’s expense — at least up to the amount the state would have paid its employees.

The authority would only kick in if the hospitals continue to miss their performance targets.

The change would last three years. County officials said it only needs to be in place long enough to whittle down the backlog, then can expire.

DSHS isn’t taking a stance on the measure because former Gov. Chris Gregoire didn’t include it in her budget and new Gov. Jay Inslee has yet to unveil his version of a budget. The agency told lawmakers it is working through some of its concerns with the counties and wants to make sure counties will pay the difference if the private contractors cost more.

Rep. Dawn Morrell of Puyallup and Sen. Steve Conway of Tacoma are shepherding the idea through the Legislature, and the Democrats have bipartisan support for their proposed legislation, House Bill 1627 and Senate Bill 5551. Lawmakers will take more public testimony on the latter bill at 2 p.m. today in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.