Three years of decisions by a state panel of experts suggest Western State Hospital underestimates or downplays risks to public safety in its efforts to release mentally ill patients previously charged with violent crimes.
The governor’s Public Safety Review Panel, created by the Legislature in 2010, has examined 54 proposed releases from the state’s two mental hospitals over the last three years, according to public records obtained by The News Tribune.
The decisions reveal a trend: The seven-member panel typically agreed with release recommendations from Eastern State Hospital in Spokane, supporting the hospital in 16 of 20 cases.
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The picture changes at Western State in Lakewood, the state’s largest mental-health facility. The review panel has opposed the hospital’s recommended releases in 16 of 34 cases — almost half.
“We noticed that, too,” said Dr. Henry Richards, the psychologist who chairs the review panel. “I think what it means is that the two hospitals don’t do things the same way — which is one of the concerns that led to the creation of the panel.”
Ron Adler, CEO of Western State, said the hospital and the review panel are following state guidelines. He added that most released patients return to the community and pose no threat to public safety.
“The entire issue of ‘forensic’ patient discharges and reintegration into community life is one of concern, especially with the increase in violence noted around the United States,” he said. “The bottom line is about public safety, and to that end, WSH and PSRP continue to forge a collaborative relationship.”
Violent crimes formed the backdrop in 10 of the 16 cases in which the panel disagreed with Western State’s assessments. The cases include four people charged with murder, one charged with attempted murder and five more charged with first- or second-degree assault.
All had been found not guilty by reason of insanity. All were recommended for conditional release by Western State, including the prospect of unsupervised travel in the community.
The review panel’s decisions ding the hospital for providing insufficient information, relying on generalized diagnoses and giving limited attention to potential public safety risks.
One example comes from a 2011 decision by the review panel. It refers to a woman charged with attempted murder in 2006, later acquitted by reason of insanity. She entered an office and repeatedly stabbed another woman in the eyes, torso and groin. The victim survived, permanently blinded, according to records.
In November 2011, Western State’s experts recommended a conditional release for the woman. The review panel disagreed, citing her violent history and defiant behavior in treatment.
“The PSRP suggests that WSH, given Ms. (X’s) history of exceptionally and repeated dangerous behavior, approach this case with increased caution.”
– Public Safety Review Panel decision, 11-15-11
Records of the panel’s decisions provided to The News Tribune were heavily redacted. Citing privacy restrictions, the state blacked out the names of patients and victims, along with the county where initial charges were filed and other details.
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One notorious case defies anonymity, despite the redactions. The circumstances surrounding spree killer Isaac Zamora are well known to the public. The case, among other factors, drove the creation of the review panel.
During a rampage in 2008, Zamora shot and killed six people, including a Skagit County sheriff’s deputy. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity for two of the murders and committed to Western State.
A state law passed in 2010 allowed the state to transfer mental patients from state hospitals to the Department of Corrections. Zamora, deemed a security risk at the state hospital, was transferred in 2012 — the first patient shifted under the new law. The review panel examined the transfer request and supported it, according to records.
Under state law, defendants acquitted due to insanity cannot be released without a decision by a court. The review panel adds another layer of scrutiny, examining the recommendations from state hospitals. The panel plays an advisory role; it has no direct authority, but its recommendations go into the court file.
Panel members include Lakewood police Chief Bret Farrar and Richards, a forensic psychologist who has worked at Western State. Richards also was director of the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, a state facility for civilly committed sex offenders.
Richards said the differences in release recommendations between Western State and Eastern State are a continuing topic of discussion.
“We know that the hospitals are meeting and they’re meeting with members of our panel to try to increase that uniformity,” he said. “For many of these illnesses, people do get better — they’re able to be managed in the community. The panel is specifically dealing with the people who have been dangerous — the larger number don’t have this history of violence toward others.”
A law passed in 2013 broadens the panel’s authority. In addition to reviewing releases of people acquitted by reason of insanity, the panel will review potential releases of individuals charged with violent crimes, but found incompetent to stand trial. The panel can recommend additional supervision, including monitoring by the Corrections Department.
To date, the panel has reviewed no releases tied to incompetency; the new law took effect July 30, and the pipeline of cases flows slowly.
“There probably aren’t a lot of them, but we don’t control what comes to us,” Richards said. “My assumption is that we’ll be getting those cases.”
The law expanding the panel’s authority reflected lobbying by Pierce County law enforcement leaders, including Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
A locally notorious case triggered the legislative push: Jonathan Meline, a Western State patient found incompetent to stand trial after an incident in which he tried to run a man over with a car, was released from Western State in January 2012.
Multiple psychological evaluations concluded Meline was a paranoid schizophrenic with fixed delusions and a possible danger to others. In October 2012, he chopped his father to death with a hatchet.
The reasons for Meline’s release remain unclear. It predated passage of the new law, and no court review was required. The new law changes that.
“What should be happening is Western State Hospital should be looking at these offenders every 180 days,” Lindquist said. “We can’t force them to hold the offender, but we can give them tools with which to hold the offender and require that the offender be reviewed.”
The chance of release is a fundamental right for patients with mental illness, and the state can’t take it away. Western State is a hospital, not a prison. Whether incompetent or acquitted due to insanity, patients can petition for release under state law.
“They may not meet criteria for another commitment,” said Adler, the Western State CEO. “We can say, ‘We’d like you to stay voluntarily,’ and they can say, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ ”