In a first, King County moves against WA for mental health failures in jails


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The King County Prosecutor’s Office is filing several civil contempt orders against the Department of Social and Health Services, alleging state officials have failed to provide timely mental health services to people in jail. 

This is the first time King County officials have intervened in this way. They’re also asking judges to sanction DSHS $219 a day — funds that would go toward reimbursing the county jail for the cost of caring for people with severe mental illnesses who would otherwise be housed at state hospitals. 

Local courts statewide have become increasingly frustrated with their inability to get people out of county jails and into mental health care. In the meantime, hundreds of people are waiting in legal limbo, their cases blocked as they wait in jail to be moved to state psychiatric hospitals. King County’s move could foreshadow additional efforts to force the state into finding a resolution or risking continued fines.

The county’s motions, made on behalf of the King County Executive’s Office, were filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court in the criminal case of Jay Alexander, a Seattle man with a history of mental illness who assaulted two people and killed one this summer, as well as in the cases of six other defendants. 

“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,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in an emailed statement. 

The county argues the state is violating a previous class-action settlement known as Trueblood, which in 2018 laid out timelines for people in jail to receive mental health evaluations to determine whether they’re competent to stand trial and restoration services at state psychiatric facilities like Western or Eastern State Hospital. State officials have been struggling to meet those timelines, and people often wait, stuck in jail, weeks or months past their allotted times. 

“The numbers (approx. 100 people on any given day) have become intolerable, our resources are stretched to the limit, and we have no sign that there is any resolution to the backlog coming from the state at this point,” said Chase Gallagher, a spokesperson with the Executive’s Office. 

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Other counties like Pierce and Grays Harbor have made similar attempts to repurpose sanctions that would go toward the cost of defendants’ care at their local jails.

A spokesperson with DSHS said the agency will oppose the motions.

“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,” read an emailed statement. “We are working to increase capacity and bring additional beds on line as quickly as possible. Our commitment remains to serve our clients.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this reporting. 



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