SEATTLE — The state agency responsible for providing competency evaluations and treatment for people arrested for crimes must pay more fines for failing to provide services in a timely manner, according to a Washington Supreme Court ruling on Thursday.
The high court said the state is liable for fines starting the day the judge issues a contempt order, but the justices ruled in favor of the Department of Social and Health Services when it argued it shouldn’t pay interest on those fines.
The case involved 28 people in Eastern Washington who waited extended periods for competency services at Eastern State Hospital. A state judge found the agency in contempt when services weren’t provided by his deadlines.
The state argued the judge only issued oral orders and the written rulings came out after they had provided the services, so they shouldn’t be liable for fines. But the justices said oral rulings are the same as written orders, and the orders go into effect as soon as they are spoken.
Kelly Stowe, spokeswoman for the agency, said they respect the court’s ruling.
“Providing timely competency evaluation and restoration services remain a priority for the agency,” she said in an email.
Jennifer Sweigert, representing the people who had to wait for services, said the state is still failing to take care of mentally ill people.
“The resources we need for mental health in this state are woefully inadequate,” she told the Associated Press. “They’ve made some steps, but I suspect we’re still not seeing across the board people getting what they need in a timely manner.”
While this case involved Eastern State Hospital, the state is on the hook for millions of dollars for contempt-of-court orders issued by a federal judge in a case involving the agency and Western State Hospital — Washington’s largest psychiatric hospital.
A federal lawsuit filed in 2014 on the behalf of mentally ill people waiting for competency services resulted in contempt fines when the state failed to fix the problem after a judge said the state was failing to provide services for its most vulnerable population.
Things grew worse as the hospital repeatedly failed federal health and safety inspections, and ultimately lost its federal certification and funding.
The total fines owed in the federal case topped $84 million, Stowe said.
The two sides in the federal case reached a settlement last year that requires the state to implement a list of reforms that will be phased in over time.
Gov. Jay Inslee and some lawmakers have said fixing the state’s mental health systems is a top priority. They want to shift mental health services away from large institutions and move the care into community centers, but that could take years.