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King County takes legal action against DSHS for leaving defendants with mental illnesses in jail

On Tuesday, King County filed a motion asking a judge to award them sanctions to reimburse the county for the cost of housing inmates with mental illnesses.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — On Tuesday, King County filed a motion in King County Superior Court, asking a judge to award the county $219.90 per day for every day the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) fails to transport defendant Alexander Jay to Western State Psychiatric Hospital for court-ordered treatment.

Jay, age 40, was charged with assaulting a nurse in a Seattle light rail station and another woman at a bus stop in March.

In April, Jay was found incompetent to stand trial and DSHS was directed to transport him for mental health treatment within the seven-day legal time frame. That was nearly eight months ago. Jay is still waiting in King County Jail for a bed at Western State. Since the original charges, Jay has also been charged with murdering a man on Capitol Hill.

In the motion, the county said it is incurring “unnecessary costs” by housing a seriously mentally ill defendant that DSHS has the legal obligation to care for - and that the “County should be compensated for its losses.”

“As I’ve said many times, the county jail is not a behavioral health facility. But for too many that’s exactly what it has become. This failure to provide court mandated care impacts those awaiting justice,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in a written statement.

Alexander Jay is one of more than a record-number of 100 mentally ill defendants waiting in the King County Jail for a bed at Western State Hospital. The county filed what are called “Motions to Intervene” in cases involving seven of those defendants on Tuesday. More motions are expected to be filed in cases involving other defendants who are waiting.

The KING 5 Investigators have exposed that approximately 850 mentally ill defendants across the state are waiting for court-ordered mental health treatment at state psychiatric facilities. Most of them are waiting for beds at Western State Hospital in Lakewood and Eastern State Hospital outside of Spokane.

The series also revealed DSHS is in violation of a federal court order stemming from a 2014 lawsuit, known as "Trueblood," filed by advocates including Disability Rights Washington. That order found defendants must be transported to a state facility within seven days after a finding that the person is incompetent to understand the charges against them. The state’s violations have already cost DSHS $98 million in fines. More than $200 million in additional fines have piled up but are currently on hold unless the court finds the state is in “material breach” of a 2018 settlement agreement.

Officials at DSHS said they have been hit with a “perfect storm” of events that have caused so many people to be left waiting in jails:

  • COVID caused pauses in admissions to the state hospitals, which created a backlog of cases in the county court systems.
  • Lack of staff. At Western State 21% of positions are unfilled, despite the state’s attempts at creating incentives for work opportunities.
  • Unprecedented need. State officials said they were blindsided by a massive increase in court-directives for services. Between 2021 and 2022 state records show the need went up by approximately 40%.

“We don’t have enough beds even though we’ve added over 150 beds since 2015. We’ve created residential treatment facilities, (and we’ve) expanded at Eastern and Western State Hospitals,” said Dr. Thomas Kinlen, director of the DSHS Office of Forensic Mental Health Services. “Unfortunately, the demand for competency restoration services continues to grow and grow and grow.”

If a judge grants the county’s motion for sanctions, in the Alexander Jay case alone, that would currently add up to approximately $7,000 for reimbursement of jail expenses. That is in addition to compensatory sanctions already leveled against DSHS in the amount of roughly $50,000 set to be awarded to Jay’s housing and mental health needs when his incarceration ends.

“The entire point of the County’s motion is to get the defendant out of the jail and into a hospital for the services he needs,” wrote authors of the legal filing.

In a statement, DSHS said they will fight the county in court.

“DSHS will oppose the motion because additional sanctions take money away from the programs providing the competency services to patients. The hospitals are full, referrals are up 40% over the past year while we deal with acute staffing shortages which are affecting the entire nation, and we are working to increase capacity and bring additional beds on line as quickly as possible. Our commitment remains to serve our clients,” wrote Tyler Hemstreet, DSHS media relations manager.

No date has been set for a hearing on the county’s motion.

“Today we’re holding the state to account and beginning to file contempt orders with the court to require the state to meet their constitutional obligations. These cases are serious – alleged crimes like murder, assault, and rape. And delaying trials while defendants wait for their evaluations or restoration services creates enormous costs for local governments, potentially delays critical behavioral health care, and prevents justice,” Constantine said.

Watch: Record number of defendants with mental illness in jail


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