End state law that criminalizes mental health patients
A misguided state law and a tough-on-crime approach fills prisons and jails with mentally ill inmates, writes columnist Jonathan Martin.
Times editorial columnist
Video chat replay
Replay a video chat with Jonathan Martin and mental-health experts about what’s troubling the state’s system of care at
Josh Paquette was squeezed between a messy divorce and a bad reaction to prescription drugs when he walked into Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton last winter. He knew he was in full psychiatric distress.
A mental-health professional heard Paquette’s plan for suicide and legally detained him for 72 hours. Paquette, ranting and refusing to get into a hospital gown, was less than a model patient because, as he now says, “I was out of my mind.”
What’s really crazy is what happened next. Paquette ended up charged with harassment for objecting to the hospital’s treatment. No one was hurt, but a temporary lack of cooperation — by a patient who’d just been deemed, legally and clinically, to be in crisis — ended with Paquette on trial.
“Probably the worst day of his life, and all he wants is to get help,” said his lawyer, David Gates. “Instead, he gets prosecuted.”
Washington is in a real mental-health crisis now, with the state scrambling to open hundreds of psychiatric hospital beds after a state Supreme Court ruling in August. That is a welcome shift, because in the absence of those resources, prisons and jails are the de facto psychiatric hospitals.
This response to the swelling of the numbers of mentally ill inmates is inhumane, and avoidable. It could start with a few changes of law, and approach.
One problem is a state law which makes any assault on health-care personnel an automatic Class C felony. Joanne Walter’s daughter was ensnared by it in May, when she spit at a nurse as she was being detained for psychiatric treatment at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee.
I’m not naming the woman at her mother’s request, but Walter said her daughter has been hospitalized at least 15 times for bipolar disorder. “We’ve never had an experience like this,” Walter said.
The nurse said she was also punched, but a security guard standing in the room didn’t see that assault. Nonetheless, a felony trial is pending, because of the automatic-felony state law.
David Carlson, legal advocacy director for the watchdog group Disability Rights Washington, said these stories are disturbingly common. “This is punishing people for their mental illness,” he said.
He puzzles at the choice by prosecutors to press these cases, because there’s no deterrent effect. If people were in control of their illness, they wouldn’t be seeking help.
The better response, Carlson said, is to provide medical staff stronger training in dealing with symptoms of mental illness. It’s worth noting that the hospitals that saw Paquette and Walter’s daughter don’t have psychiatric units.
“Let’s look at the root cause and fix it,” said Carlson. “Putting people with mental illness in prison won’t.”
I sympathize with medical staff who are hurt on the job. But serious assaults would be prosecuted even without the automatic-felony state law. Without it, prosecutors could have more discretion how, and whether, to file charges.
The state Legislature last year considered expanding the law to include non-medical staff members at Western and Eastern State Hospitals. If it comes back up, lawmakers should be skeptical about the effect: It would undoubtedly ensure more mentally ill inmates.
Josh Paquette appears to have avoided a felony charge because he clenched his fists, but didn’t use them. During a trial in May for the misdemeanor harassment charge, his lawyer called a hospital security guard to the stand, who testified that Paquette didn’t pose any real threat. After a three-day trial, the jury deadlocked, ending the case in a mistrial.
“I look back on it, and it’s a nightmare, but a nightmare that was real,” said Paquette, 32. He has no other criminal history, and said the incident last December was his first breakdown.
The charge, however, cost him $6,300 in legal bills. And it has endangered his security clearance to work as a civilian at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.
Paquette drew one other lesson. “I will never go back” to the Bremerton hospital, he said. “I’m petrified to seek medical attention there.”