Public safety is paramount, but so is the need to protect constitutional rights.
When the two conflict, there are no easy answers.
Benton County Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner recently found himself in the middle of this quandary, and he handled it with wisdom and compassion. But he never should have been put in this position in the first place.
Spanner was the judge at the recent competency hearing for Lucio Reyes Perez, a Whitstran man accused of attempted murder in June. Court officials say he is suffering from schizophrenia, is delusional and hears voices.
But he has refused offers for mental health treatment while in solitary confinement over the past five months in the Benton County jail. This means he is considered incompetent and can’t face the charges against him.
He was arrested June 19 after allegedly waiting outside a Prosser market with a handgun that he used to shoot a man he said had been plotting to kill him. The man was shot in the neck, but survived.
Perez has been waiting in jail ever since. He should have been moved to a state psychiatric hospital a long time ago for an evaluation and treatment, but there have been no beds available and there are others on a waiting list ahead of him.
Spanner made the bold move to hold the state accountable for this unacceptable situation. He threatened to release Perez last week if the state can’t take him by Dec. 9.
That will be a tough call if it has to be made, but perhaps drastic action is what it will take to force lawmakers to change the state’s inadequate mental health system.
Spanner ordered the 66-year-old Perez be sent to Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake months ago so he could receive treatment and the case could proceed. But no one picked him up, and he was put on a long waiting list. Hospital officials say a state policy restricts them from admitting one patient ahead of others. No cutting in line allowed.
But a defendant should not be expected to languish in a county jail for months on end while awaiting a turn for treatment. This violates their constitutional rights.
Clearly, the state needs to figure out a better way to manage its mental health care services. The state’s psychiatric hospitals are trying to improve, and 15 more beds are expected to open up at Eastern in the coming weeks, with another 15 after the first of the year.
But that still won’t be good enough. The state needs more capacity. There are already 35 people waiting for beds at Eastern, including Perez, and about 150 people out of custody or in county jails awaiting evaluations. This is unacceptable and has been for a long while.
Washington has been ranked in the recent past as one of the worst in the country for providing mental health services to its citizens, according to Mental Health America, a national mental health advocacy group based in Virginia. The latest data places Washington at 47th for overall care.
That’s disturbing, but unfortunately, not surprising.
The Perez case is difficult, and puts Spanner is a bind. Having to decide between protecting the public or the constitutional rights of a mentally ill defendant is not a call any judge should have to make.
State officials need to increase psychiatric beds and services, and find a way to quit using jails as mental health facilities.