Long Jail Stays For Washington Mentally Ill Ended By Federal Judge

SEATTLE, April 2 (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge ordered Washington state on Thursday to end long jail terms for criminal defendants awaiting mental competency exams, after ruling last year that such actions had violated the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ordered an injunction requiring that such inmates receive competency services within seven days, adding in her 25-page order that a monitor would be appointed to oversee the ruling.

"Washington is violating the constitutional rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens," Pechman wrote. "Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services. Jails are not hospitals."

Washington state law requires mental competency evaluations to be performed within seven days on defendants who have been charged with a crime and might be mentally incompetent to stand trial.

But in recent years, defendants were left languishing for up to six months, some in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, partly because of staff and funding shortages at the state's Department of Social and Health Services.

"We're evaluating the ruling in consultation with our clients, and that's all we can really say on the matter right now," Washington State Attorney General spokesman Peter Lavallee said.

The state's health department could not be immediately reached for comment.

Pechman found in December that the state had violated the due process rights of some pretrial criminal defendants suspected of mental illness by keeping them jailed for weeks or even months awaiting a competency evaluation.

Pechman wrote in Thursday's order that the state routinely flouted the court's orders, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of contempt fees.

She added that about half of those ordered to undergo mental competency evaluations are ultimately found incompetent.

Thursday's order came in the remedy phase of the lawsuit, brought by attorneys of mentally ill inmates and the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in U.S. District Court in Seattle. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Writing by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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