LONG BEACH — Two people with mental illness charged with low-level crimes were transferred to Western State Hospital last week after sitting for two months in Pacific County Jail. This wait was despite a new law which required the judge to dismiss the cases after these defendants were found incompetent in late August.
Hedy Piacendile, 65, was booked into Pacific County Jail on Aug. 8. She was arrested on a bench warrant for failing to appear in court on misdemeanor charges from June 21, 2018. The charges were malicious mischief in the third degree and criminal trespass.
In an unrelated case, 43-year-old Gian Moreno was arrested on Aug. 9 for criminal trespass in the second degree.
Piacendile and Moreno were both found to be unable to understand the court proceedings and unable to defend themselves against the misdemeanor charges, even with assistance from a public defender.
Compelling state interest?
Under a new law that went into effect on July 28, once a defendant in a misdemeanor case is found incompetent, the court is required to hold a hearing to dismiss the cases. At that hearing, if the prosecuting attorney proves there is a compelling state interest for competency restoration, the court may order restoration. Restoration is when a court orders a defendant to treatment to see if their mental health can be stabilized so they can be prosecuted.
Pacific County Deputy Chief Prosecuting Attorney Ben Haslam said based on his understanding of the case, that hearing was never held.
“After the evaluation, the next time they had come into court, that’s the date it could have been dismissed,” Haslam said.
Piacendile’s order for competency restoration was signed by South District Court Judge Nancy McAllister during a pre-trial hearing on Aug. 28, about a month after she was arrested. The court did not move to dismiss the case. The form ordering Piacendile’s restoration did not include the step of finding a compelling state interest to send Piacendile for restoration. The prosecution filled out the form for restoration, marking that Piacendile’s charges in the case amounted to a serious offense. Nothing in Piacendile’s file explains why the judge and the prosecution believed this was a serious enough case to warrant restoration.
Moreno’s order for restoration was signed the same day as Piacendile’s, again with no motion from the court to dismiss the case and nothing filed by the prosecution or the court that would indicate what compelling state interest warranted Moreno being sent for restoration.
The order for restoration was filed as soon as possible after the defendants were found incompetent to get them into treatment as quickly as possible, McAllister said on Oct. 15 when asked about these cases. A judge has the option to hold a hearing to dismiss, she said. When asked what statute she was reading from, the judge said she wasn’t sure.
“The assessment came in, the state made a motion for restoration,” McAllister said. “I was trying to prevent these individuals from any delays.”
McAllister would not comment on whether this complied with the new law.
Scott Harmer, the public defender for Piacendile and Moreno, would not comment on their cases.
Piacendile and Moreno sat two months in Pacific County jail before on Oct. 11 Western State Hospital transferred them for restoration. If the cases against the pair were dismissed, the judge would have the option to hold Piacendile and Moreno long enough for a crisis responder to evaluate for civil commitment, rather than keeping them in the criminal justice system, said Haslam.
State faced sanctions
Western State Hospital is one of two state-owned psychiatric hospitals for adults in the state of Washington. It provides services to people in 20 western Washington counties, including Pacific County. The hospital provides evaluation and inpatient treatment for people with serious or long-term mental illness. Western has struggled over the past decade to keep up with the increasing demand for services. It is the focus of federal and judicial scrutiny. On Monday, Oct. 14, there were 119 people waiting in jail for restoration services at Western State Hospital, according to the Office of Forensic Mental Health Services.
In 2015, a federal judge ruled in Trueblood et. al. v Washington State DSHS, wait times for treatment in Washington jails violated the rights of people with a mental illness. The Trueblood lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Washington, sought relief for defendants waiting months in jail for competency evaluations and a bed in Western State Hospital.
The lawsuit showed that each additional day in jail caused further deterioration for people with severe mental illness. It can increase the risk of suicide and victimization by other people in the jail. And it can cause an illness to become more habitual and harder to cure, resulting in longer restoration periods or in the inability to ever restore that person to competency.
The state was ordered to move individuals facing criminal charges out of jail and into treatment facilities within seven or 14 days of when they are eligible for competency evaluation and restoration treatment. After the ruling, the state was being fined for each day and each defendant waiting in jails statewide. The new law was meant to help the state come into compliance with the ruling, said Kimberly Mosolf, attorney for Disability Rights Washington.
“People with mental illness are being harmed by long waits in jail, so under the change in the new law people charged with misdemeanors aren’t supposed to be sent de facto to restoration,” Mosolf said.
Caught up in the justice system
Piacendile was arrested on Aug. 31, 2018, while walking down the middle of Willows Road in Seaview. She failed to appear for her court date and was arrested on a warrant on Aug. 8. Piacendile was in town visiting her son when she was arrested. Court staff said he called almost every day to check on her.
If convicted, Piacendile could be sentenced to a total of 180 days jail time plus fines. Her criminal history showed an arrest in 2005 and nothing more recent, according to the prosecution.
During her evaluation, the psychologist interviewing her, Judith Kirkby, quoted Piacendile:
“The only reason I’m here is I had a bench warrant and the cops picked me up they don’t know who I am! … they could just pick up you … how would you react … if you’d been to jail … and then you don’t know what’s going on. That’s the way I feel. I don’t need a mental evaluation. This is a charge that happened a year ago …”
When Moreno was arrested he was walking on private property in a wooded area near Bay Center and wouldn’t leave when asked. He told the landowner it was federal land and he could walk there. He did not threaten violence.
If convicted, Moreno would face at least 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. His criminal history showed arrests in Texas and California for similar misdemeanors.
Restoration vs. treatment
The court asked both defendants be restored within 29 days. That is almost never enough time for a person to be restored to competency, Haslam said. The hospital can extend the time to restore a defendant and if the patient doesn’t stabilize after 90 days, the hospital will typically determine the people are not restorable, he said.
Piacendile’s Washington State Identification Card listed her address as the Compass Housing Alliance, an organization in Seattle that provides a permanent mailing address to people without housing.
Moreno does not appear to have any ties to Pacific County, according to his case file.
Pacific County does have a misdemeanor mental health diversion court, but it doesn’t allow for people from outside the county like Piacendile and Moreno.
Judd Comer is the jail liaison for the Justice Mental Health Collaboration Program. In the past year and a half, he and a team of people from the Pacific County Health Department and sheriff’s office worked to improve the Pacific County jail’s response to people with mental illness. The program brought a mental health specialist to work at the jail in March to help Comer with evaluations and therapy sessions.
But Comer can’t force people in the jail to cooperate with him.
“You do what you can, but if they’re that sick then they’ll need to go off for restoration,” Comer said.
Watching how long people have to wait for that is heartbreaking, Comer said. And there isn’t a great answer, he said. Sometimes, designated crisis responders won’t recommend someone for civil commitment and involuntary treatment. And if the person doesn’t want a plan for treatment when they leave jail, there isn’t much Comer can do. Restoration may be the best option for them in one sense, Comer said.
In another sense, the long wait for it can do more damage than if they’d gotten released and connected with services through something other than law enforcement, Comer said.
“If someone is in jail and they have a life outside of jail, what is the greater good? Is the greater good the individual sitting in jail and losing all their things?” Comer said. “Then they get out and they don’t have those things to help and support them. We jam them up even worse.”