Prosecutors say new move from DSHS could hurt public safety

SEATTLE — Some prosecutors say a new move from Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services could endanger public safety across Washington.

In a memo dated Dec. 14, DSHS stated that Eastern and Western State Hospitals will not accept some people whose felony charges are dismissed after they’ve been waiting for mental health treatment.

This means they could be released from jail right into the community.

It’s an action the King County Executive’s Office said goes against a judge’s orders and against the law.

Last month, KIRO 7 spoke to Kim Hayes, who was thrown down the stairs in a Seattle light rail station and attacked in March. She spoke out about the crisis in the state’s mental health system.

“We need to improve this process and we need to do it thoughtfully and fast,” she said.

Hundreds of people are waiting months behind bars for mental health services so they can participate in their own trials.

Judges have even ordered dozens of them, including Hayes’s alleged attacker, Alexander Jay, to be paid $250 a day because of it.

“They’re sitting in jail, not getting the treatment they need,” she said.

But now, it appears that the crisis is growing faster than even prosecutors anticipated.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said the memo from DSHS arrived out of the blue.

In it, DSHS wrote that its ability to admit patients to Eastern State Hospital and Western State Hospital, our state’s biggest psychiatric facility, “has reached a critical point” with not enough space.

The memo stated “it is expected that some civil conversion patients referred to DSHS will not be able to be admitted, which could lead to these individuals then being released from jail into the community.”

Up until now, if a felony case was dismissed because a judge agreed with a defendant’s attorney that they were waiting too long for treatment or because a judge agreed with an expert that the person was incompetent to stand trial, they became a civil conversion patient.

They went to Western State Hospital for 72 or 120 hours — by law and on the order of the court — to get evaluated for a possible long-term stay.

But KIRO 7 discovered that’s not happening for everyone anymore.

The King County Executive’s Office sent a letter to DSHS on Tuesday after Western State said it “would be refusing admission” to two men whose felony cases were dismissed in King County.

King County Deputy Executive April Putney wrote, “We were quite surprised by these communications, especially when there was no prior notice or discussion” and she cited “a mandatory legal duty on your agency” under state law.

Pierce County also told KIRO 7 it was aware of at least one person whose charges had been dismissed and whose admission had been denied.

DSHS said these are “necessary emergency measures to avoid a complete collapse” of its psychiatric hospital admission system. DSHS also said it’s prioritizing admitting patients who are violent and present serious safety risks over “less violent” patients.

KIRO 7 asked DSHS specifically if it was simply refusing to follow the law and court orders.

It stated that it did “not have the ability to comply with all of the competing court orders currently placing patients into the state hospitals,” adding that “continuing to admit all felony conversion cases is impossible.”