OLYMPIA – Jails in Pierce County face a backlog of inmates waiting for mental competency evaluations, creating additional pressure on already thin resources and in some cases threatening public safety. A bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee is designed to cut into that backlog.

Governor Inslee signs Senate Bill No. 5551
Relating to competency to stand trial evaluations.

Previously, the state evaluators had seven days to perform their examination on suspects held in jail or the state mental hospital and 21 days for those released pending a review. Heavy caseloads and a limited number of professional evaluators often cause those deadlines to be missed, which means the men and women have been left to sit in jail or to wander the streets without treatment. Under Senate Bill 5551, county courts will be permitted to appoint an expert evaluator to help review the backlog of cases.

“In Pierce County, we have seen more than 80 inmates getting medication because of a lack of resources to deal with their ailment. It doesn’t do any good for someone with a mental illness to sit in jail without treatment,” said Sen. Steve Conway, D-South Tacoma, who sponsored the bill. “Getting a bill passed that reduces that backlog and gets people the help they need was one of my biggest priorities this session and I was very pleased to see Gov. Inslee sign it into law.”

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said leaders of local public safety and health systems appreciate the help.

“We stepped up and offered this solution to help the state, which fell behind in providing timely competency evaluations and caused a backlog of cases that slowed the judicial system and increased costs in the county jail,” McCarthy said. “This new law addresses a critical need in our community and many others. With the state and county working together, we can get these important evaluations done faster.”

Under SB 5551, county courts will be allowed to contract with expert evaluators if the state does not meet its evaluation deadline in 50 percent of its cases in any six-month period. Those experts would be approved by the county prosecutors’ offices and be paid a set rate.

“These backlogs are dangerous for jail personnel and unfair to the men and women who should be getting treatment rather than a long wait in a cell,” said Conway. “This bill creates the mechanism to help us catch up and serve both public safety and needs of the mentally ill.”

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For more information: Ian Cope, Senate Democratic Caucus, 360-786-7535

For interviews: Sen. Steve Conway, 360-786-7656