Breaking News
More () »

Prosecutor: Flood of mentally ill inmates stuck in local jails is a ‘public safety crisis’

More judges across the state are dismissing charges against mentally ill defendants waiting too long for mental health treatment in jail.

SEATTLE — King County records show that in the last four years, judges have released dozens of mentally ill defendants charged with felonies because they waited too long in jail for court-ordered mental health treatment.

In Washington, state law requires defendants deemed so mentally ill they can’t understand the charges against them receive help at a state psychiatric hospital within seven days. Currently, records show, some inmates are waiting up to nine months for a bed at Western State Hospital, run by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

The record backlog has prompted judges across the state to release defendants on their own recognizance or to dismiss charges altogether, citing a violation of the defendants’ constitutional right to receive medical care while in custody.

Since 2018, charges dismissed due to long wait times include felony harassment, indecent exposure, burglary, hate crimes and assault with a deadly weapon, records show.

“This is a public safety crisis,” said Rebecca Vasquez, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney at the King County Prosecutor’s Office who specializes in these cases. “These delays are harming public safety, harming my office’s ability to do our job and prosecute cases, and harming the defendants that (DSHS is) directed to care for.”

Residents of the small, rural town of New Meadows, Idaho know all too well about the worst-case scenario when mentally ill inmates are released due to unconstitutional wait times for psychiatric help.

Tragedy in Idaho

John Cody Hart was released from the Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Washington in July due to lack of mental health treatment in a timely manner.

In October, the 28-year-old ended up in New Meadows, Idaho – allegedly shooting and killing Rory and Sara Mehen, two pillars of the community whom he had never met.

“We are all grieving,” said New Meadows Mayor Julie Good. “How could this be happening? How is it that he is free to come into our small, quiet, beautiful community and wreak havoc not just with the family’s lives but our life? How does that happen and there’s no reason that it should have.”

Before making it to Idaho, Hart was serving time in the Clark County Jail, awaiting trial for charges of first- and second-degree assault. According to legal documents, in 2021, Hart allegedly attacked an acquaintance in a Vancouver apartment. “Unprovoked,” prosecutors said he strangled the man and tried to “rip out (his) eyes” with his thumbs.

After a four-month wait for a bed at Western State Hospital, a Clark County judge got fed up. Judge Robert Lewis released Hart to wait for a bed at the hospital in the community. Hart was supposed to be under intense supervision with several conditions, including an order to possess no firearms.

“I simply can’t continue to hold (Hart) on the expectation that maybe someday (DSHS will) come to pick him up (to transport him to Western State Hospital),” said Judge Lewis on July 22. “I do this with some reluctance as the charges against Mr. Hart are very serious ... His motion to release is granted.”

Three months later, Rory and Sara Mehen were dead.

“They were all about community and coming together for a common purpose,” said Good. “I think it’s insulting, the reality that this didn’t have to happen. It’s going to be difficult no matter what; but the way that it happened and the reason that it happened, it just adds more of a punch to the pain we’re feeling.”

According to police records, Hart told investigators he shot the couple in the lobby of the historic hotel they owned and operated - the Hartland Inn - after the Pope instructed him to kill the Mehens because they were like “Bonnie and Clyde.” He said the couple made him feel like a “thief” because he was looking through guest rooms for socks he believed belonged to his children.

“That’s horrible to hear. I’m devastated to hear that someone was out and harmed," said Dr. Thomas Kinlen, director of the DSHS Office of Forensic Mental Health Services. “(For) the entire department, (public safety) is a huge concern. That’s why we want to get these orders (for psychiatric services) as quickly as possible.”

Officials for DSHS said unpredictable and unprecedented demand has outpaced hospital capacity. Long pauses in hospital admissions due to COVID is also adding to the bottleneck in local jails across the state, according to state officials.

“We’re adding capacity as fast as we can. But adding beds unfortunately takes time to do,” Kinlen said. “We’re trying to expand and create additional beds but the (court-ordered services) continue to increase.”

“We are working as hard as we can,” said DSHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Waiblinger. “We are constantly trying to think, ‘If we can’t create extra beds and we can’t create staff out of thin air, what can we do to make things better? What can we do to make things more efficient?’”

King County to Legislature: ‘You are putting the community at risk’

Vasquez, of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, said she’s seen the system failing defendants and the public for years due to poor planning and chronic underfunding of mental health resources. She said the legislature needs to take a hard look at funding priorities.

“(This is) an immense crisis. And the system is years past its breaking point,” Vasquez said. “(Lawmakers) need to know that you are putting the community at risk by preventing prosecutors from being able to seek justice. They are putting the community at risk by allowing people to get out of jail without a safe place to go. Our whole community is impacted by not taking care of people with serious behavioral health needs.”

The October murders of Sara and Rory Mehen were the first acts of random violence anyone in New Meadows, Idaho can remember. The small town is working to make sure the tragedy doesn’t define them, but they have a message for public policymakers in Washington.

“Whatever they can do to make it so that this doesn’t happen again to another small community needs to happen, they need to find a way,” said Mayor Good. “Why do we as a community need to be part of that broken system?”

Before You Leave, Check This Out