On a recent afternoon in room 1101 of the Seattle Municipal Court, a slight black man with unevenly shorn hair faced the judge and confessed. "I'm guilty," Maunu Williams said. "And I'm sorry for taking the shoes." He explained that at the time he had been homeless, and suicidal. And so he took the shoes. "I just want to resolve this issue," he said. The public defender asked the judge to ignore his client's apparent guilty plea and instead order a competency evaluation to determine if Williams is mentally capable of understanding the charges and assisting in his own defense. If he is ruled incompetent, the misdemeanor theft charges will most likely be dropped. The judge ordered the evaluation earlier this week, after Williams had spent 13 days in jail at a cost of about $200 a night.
Delays are de rigueur in most courtrooms, but they have a particular impact in proceedings involving the mentally ill, where any setback means keeping the defendants in jail, rather than in the hospital. Since the founding of Seattle's Mental Health Court in 1999, the most troublesome delays have come in getting defendants evaluated for competency—just the first step in helping a group of people who aren't exactly criminals in and out of the criminal justice system.
As recently as this summer, it took as long as four weeks—after a judge's order—to perform an in-jail competency evaluation for defendants accused of misdemeanors, and as long as eight weeks for those accused of felonies, according to state hospital officials. For inmates transported to the Western State Hospital in Pierce County, the wait was often months.
Previously, defense attorneys had tried to challenge the hospitals in state appellate courts, by arguing that the delays violated defendants' due process rights. The cases failed. In 2004, Russell Kurth, an attorney with the Associated Counsel for the Accused decided to take a new approach.
Realizing that much of the delay came from the time it took to transport inmates to the state hospital, Kurth began requesting evaluations to be done in the jail. Starting last month, the state hospital opened an office downtown to house five doctors who will evaluate the accused in jail. The hospital also requested and received more money from the state to expand its facilities for defendants transported to the hospital.
Now, according to hospital officials, the wait for an in-jail evaluation has dropped to two weeks for those accused of misdemeanors, and less than a week for those accused of felonies. Evaluations performed at the hospital take a few weeks to a few months. Those performed while the accused are released on their own recognizance take far longer, as much as six months.
Kurth is happy with the changes, but says his fix is just a Band-Aid.
"We figured out a way around it, but it's imperfect," he said. "I don't want to give any impression that this isn't a huge problem." Apart from the general lack of funding for mental-health services, he says, the system of doing evaluations in the jail doesn't meet the ultimate goal of getting the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system and into treatment. "The jail is nowhere to house the mentally ill," he says. "It's no place to observe somebody's competence. You can't observe them 24 hours a day for 15 days like you can in a mental-health hospital."
On another afternoon, the judge called for a Mr. Jackson. A city attorney announced that Mr. Jackson would not be in court—and thus unavailable for the judge to decide whether to order a competency evaluation—because he had "management problems." His mother sat on a wooden bench, smelling slightly of whiskey, watching the proceedings with visible confusion.
The judge summoned the mother to the bench and asked her to encourage her son to cooperate. The mother replied that not cooperating is nothing new for her son.
Her son's "management problems"—not responding well to a corrections officer's attempt to collect him for court—are another frequent cause of delay in getting competency evaluations done. Kurth wonders whether there would be fewer such problem if corrections officers were accompanied by mental-health professionals when they came to fetch defendants from the jail.
"I'm not saying guards don't do a good job," he says. "That's not what they're trained for."
Dr. Carl Redick, who manages outpatient evaluations for Western State Hospital, says the squeeze on resources is inevitable when the largest providers of mental-health care are the jails. "As services in the community prove inadequate, people end up getting into conflicts and end up getting charged for crimes that they may not have in the past," he said.
Despite the delays and an ever-present lack of funding, the consensus is that Seattle's Mental Health Court is a worthwhile experiment. The court, where mental-health professionals outnumber lawyers, decreases the amount of time defendants spend in the criminal justice system, and increases their access to treatment, according to a study by the University of Washington. The irony is that this model effort inadvertently showcases the blemishes in the system it attempts to fix.
The court churns through nearly 1,000 cases every year, all of them misdemeanors (Superior Court, which handles felonies, does not have a mental-health division). The defendants are accused of stealing candy bars, falling asleep in doorways, and forgetting to show up for court dates. Most of them, arriving in handcuffs and red jail scrubs, seem confused and scared, like one man, who, upon being question by the judge about his stone silence, said, "I don't know what to think. It's too overwhelming."