Tag: disability

Appeals Court Rules State Must Pay When People With Disabilities Wait in Jail for Services

A “rubber room” at the Snohomish County Jail in 2013, used to hold people with serious mental illnesses in isolation.

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) won’t appeal a ruling by state Court of Appeals that could enable people held in jails for weeks while awaiting mental health evaluations to receive financial compensation for their lengthy, and possibly unconstitutional, confinement.

The ruling signals a possible turning point in a push by public defenders and disability rights advocates to overhaul how Washington’s criminal legal system treats jailed people with serious mental illnesses.

When someone’s mental health during and after an alleged crime comes into question, the state gives them a “competency evaluation” to determine whether they are competent to stand trial. If they’re not competent, their case can be paused while they are treated at a state facility, where staff can “restore” them to competency by using medication and therapy to treat their mental illness. The goal of restoration is to return people to a point where they can understand the charges against them, return to jail or the community, and eventually go to trial.

The ruling, which the Court of Appeals issued at the end of November, centered on Shymila Luvert, who spent four months languishing in a jail cell last year while awaiting a mental health evaluation that never came. Luvert, charged with a second-degree assault and booked into King County’s Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent last spring, didn’t appear to understand what was happening to her.

The push to force DSHS to compensate individuals with disabilities for long wait times is new, but the underlying problem is not. The number of people with mental disabilities and illnesses left waiting for mental health services in jails across Washington has risen steadily for years.

A King County judge ordered that Luvert receive a competency evaluation in her jail cell. When she refused to engage with the evaluators from DSHS, the court changed strategies, directing the department to move her to Western State Hospital in Lakewood for an inpatient evaluation within a week.

As Luvert waited for a bed to open, she sank deeper into her mental health crisis. “It was clear that she was not understanding what I was doing there, or what I was talking about,” said Ramona Brandes, the King County public defender who represented Luvert. “She was just sitting in jail, and she didn’t understand why. It was doubly sad because I couldn’t move her case forward in any way and I couldn’t get her the services she needed.”

As weeks turned to months, the court gave the department an ultimatum at the end of July: Find a bed for Luvert in less than a week or temporarily release her. When DSHS didn’t comply, the court ordered the department to pay Luvert $250 for each day she spent in jail beyond the first two weeks of her stay.

The push to force DSHS to compensate individuals with disabilities for long wait times is new, but the underlying problem is not. The number of people with mental disabilities and illnesses left waiting for mental health services in jails across Washington has risen steadily for years. Many spend their time in isolation cells with only occasional visits from mental health care providers, and their mental and physical health often deteriorates as time drags on. Some people spend more time in jail waiting for evaluation than they would have if they were simply convicted of the crime and sentenced to jail time.

In 2014, a group of public defenders and mental health advocates sued DSHS and its two major hospitals in federal court on behalf of more than 100 defendants statewide who had languished in jail while waiting weeks or months for evaluation or to have their competency “restored.” That case, known as Trueblood—named for one of the public defenders who filed the lawsuit—appeared to mark a turning point.

“Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates,” US District Judge Marsha Pechman wrote in her ruling in April 2015. The court ordered the state to complete initial in-jail mental health evaluations within two weeks, and to transfer anyone who does not appear mentally competent to a state psychiatric hospital within seven days.

But in the years since the case, DSHS hasn’t been able to consistently reduce wait times for people in need of competency evaluations or restoration. “[Trueblood] gave us all this hope that there is going to be a change, that things were going to get better,” Brandes said, “and that DSHS was going to start transporting people in a timely fashion. And then they didn’t.”

Instead, the department has paid more than $85 million in contempt fines to the federal court, along with millions to county courts. Those dollars were set aside to pay for new mental health services, staff and facilities, both in county jails and in DSHS hospitals. In 2018, DSHS reached an agreement with disability rights advocates in federal court to take a new approach. Rather than paying contempt fines, the state agreed to devote more resources not only to meeting the court’s intake timelines, but to scaling up diversion and crisis intervention programs. The court didn’t fully waive contempt fines; instead, DSHS has accrued another $100 million in fines that it will need to pay if it can’t meet its promises to improve wait times and diversion programs.

“[Trueblood] gave us all this hope that there is going to be a change, that things were going to get better, and that DSHS was going to start transporting people in a timely fashion. And then they didn’t.” —King County public defender Ramona Brandes

Kim Mosolf, the director of the treatment facilities program at Disability Rights Washington—the nonprofit that negotiated the settlement with DSHS in 2018—said the new emphasis on diversion, which keeps people out of both jails and hospitals, is a way to stem the flow of people with disabilities into jail and psychiatric hospitals. DSHS, she said, “had been trying to build their way out of the Trueblood contempt fines for several years without luck,” opening hospital beds slower than the demand for them rose.

The number of people who need in-patient evaluation or restoration outpaced the department’s ability to open new hospital beds and hire staff, keeping wait times long for people awaiting transfers from jails. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Western State Hospital to temporarily pause intake to contain an outbreak, only exacerbated delays.

Mosolf added that adding beds to speed up the process of competency restoration isn’t a long-term fix. “Restoration is not treatment in the way that most people consider treatment,” she said—the purpose of restoration is to make a patient competent enough to stand trial, even if their improvement is temporary. “The state’s own data shows that experiencing restoration does not lead to longer-term stability and health for people—so investing in more inpatient restoration beds is actually a very bad investment in terms of the returns.” Continue reading “Appeals Court Rules State Must Pay When People With Disabilities Wait in Jail for Services”

Morning Fizz: “Unlikely Alliance” Narrative Falls Flat, City’s Hotel Shelters Aren’t ADA Accessible; and State Moves to Fund Eviction Prevention

1. The Seattle press corps seems to have settled on the narrative that Compassion Seattle, the campaign to amend the city’s constitution to require the city to fund shelter and housing and keep parks and public spaces “clear”) (without providing any new funding for either purpose) is the result of an “unlikely alliance” between groups that don’t usually agree.

A quick look at the two supposed “sides”: of this alliance—on one, the Downtown Seattle Association, a business group; on the other, a list of homeless service providers that operate downtown—quickly reveals that this “unlikely alliance” story is largely an illusion.

The service providers that are supporting the initiative have long histories of working closely with downtown businesses; the directors of both Plymouth Housing and the Chief Seattle Club, for example, is on the board of the Downtown Seattle Association, while the CEO of the DSA is on the board of the Downtown Emergency Center. The Public Defender Association, meanwhile, started its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in collaboration with downtown businesses as well as the Seattle Police Department.

Another indication that Compassion Seattle is primarily a business-led effort, not one emerging from the homeless advocacy community, is the list of financial backers on the PAC’s latest fundraising email. (Political action committees are required to list their top funders on campaign literature.) They are: Downtown developer Martin Smith Inc; downtown and South Lake Union developer Vulcan; Fourth Avenue Associates LP, a large downtown real estate firm owner; and Clise Properties, which owns millions of square feet of downtown real estate; and ex-Microsoft millionaire Christopher Larson.

A quick look at the two supposed “sides”: of this alliance—on one, the Downtown Seattle Association, a business group; on the other, a list of homeless service providers that operate downtown—quickly reveals that this “unlikely alliance” story is largely an illusion.

Larson was one of the largest contributors to 2019’s People for Seattle campaign, whose incendiary attack ads made that year’s city council campaigns some of the ugliest in recent Seattle history. People for Seattle, like Compassion Seattle, was started by former city council member (and anti-panhandling crusader) Tim Burgess.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

2. Although it’s common for unsheltered people to have mobility issues—national data suggest that a very large percentage of chronically homeless people have physical disabilities—neither of the two hotels the city has belatedly opened for unsheltered people is ADA-complaint, and the larger of the two requires guests to walk up stairs to access their rooms.

King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, is the more accessible of the two hotels. CSC representatives said last week that they’ve reserved ground-floor rooms at the motor court-style motel for guests in wheelchairs, elders, and people with mobility impairments; although the motel’s 58 shelter rooms and bathrooms aren’t designed for wheelchairs, they don’t require guests to traverse any stairs.

This isn’t the case at the Executive Pacific—a 155-room hotel that’s accessible only by stairs and has no wheelchair-accessible rooms. (Youtuber Wheelchair Jimmy called it “a hotel to avoid at all costs if you’re in a wheelchair.”). The city of Seattle, not LIHI, selected the hotel, which LIHI director Sharon Lee notes is in a historic building. Asked why the city hasn’t provided any accessible rooms at its hotel-based shelters, Human Services Department spokesman Kevin Mundt told PubliCola, “the City is exploring options for a third hotel and is taking into consideration ADA accessibility.”

Mundt did not directly answer a question about where the city’s HOPE Team (which replaced the Navigation Team) was directing unsheltered people who would be eligible for the hotel shelters but happen to be in wheelchairs, saying only, “As with all shelter recommendations, the HOPE Team works with providers to match available shelter resources with individual service needs.”

3. On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means committee held a public hearing for HB 1277, which would add a $100 surcharge to the state’s document recording fee, which is collected by county auditors; the recording fee is the most significant source of funding for homelessness programs in the state bill. Groups representing landlords, realtors and housing advocates all support the bill. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: “Unlikely Alliance” Narrative Falls Flat, City’s Hotel Shelters Aren’t ADA Accessible; and State Moves to Fund Eviction Prevention”