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Mental health court could help when jail isn't the right answer

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By Diana Hefley
Herald Writer
EVERETT -- For reasons that are difficult to understand, he is compelled to talk to his ex-wife.
He knows he shouldn't. He knows he's forbidden from calling her or showing up at her doorstep. He can't seem to help himself.
A Snohomish County judge in March sentenced the Bellingham man to nearly four years in prison for violating a long-standing court order to stay away from his ex-wife.
He showed up at her house in December and asked to talk. She told him to leave. He did, but his actions landed him back in jail and earned him his twelfth conviction for violating the no-contact order.
Superior Court Judge Ellen Fair agreed with the man's attorney -- prison is not the best solution.
The 61-year-old man has been living with mental illness for years. He's been in and out of jail and treatment centers. He does better when he takes medication and checks in with a community corrections officer. On his own, he falls apart.
Once he's released from prison, he'll likely contact his ex-wife again, his attorney predicted.
Fair, however, also agreed with the prosecutor. The victim deserves some peace of mind, even if it's only for a few years.
"There just aren't any good answers here," Fair said at the sentencing.
The man's case is one of many that has motivated some public defenders, police officials, judges and advocates to research forming a mental health court in Snohomish County. They have been studying mental health courts around state and country, looking at ways to address a population of people who land in legal trouble because of untreated mental health issues.
"We're under no illusion that we're going to cure people. Instead the goal is helping them maintain a healthy productive lifestyle so they're not stuck in the criminal justice system," said Jason Schwarz, an attorney with the Snohomish County Public Defender's Association.
Schwarz and others met earlier this year for a planning session to look at launching a mental health court.
"We have found a lot of support. There's enough of a movement to try to bring a volunteer court to Snohomish County," Schwarz said.
Other counties, including King and Skagit, have been using specialized courts for mentally ill defendants. The courts, similar to the county's drug courts, offer incentives to defendants who are willing to seek treatment, find housing and work and undergo close monitoring by the court.
The criminal justice system often sees people living with mental illness who are caught up in a cycle, Skagit County deputy prosecutor Paul Nielsen said.
"Mental health court is a way to try to change their lives," Nielsen said.
Nielsen has been the prosecutor for Skagit County's mental health court for about 3 1/2 years. He acts as the gatekeeper, probing to find a nexus between the alleged crime and the person's mental health issues. People accused of certain crimes are not eligible. Some are facing their first felonies. The majority not only have a mental illness but also some sort of drug or alcohol addiction.
"We see a difference when we get them off the bad drugs and get them on medication," Nielsen said.
Defendants are required to participate for two years. During that time, they must meet with mental health treatment providers, pursue employment or schooling, secure housing and attend regular court hearings. A team reviews each case to make sure the participant is in compliance.
Defendants who break the rules face sanctions including jail time or being booted from the court. If that happens, they are once again exposed to the full weight of the justice system.
If a person successfully completes the four phases of the program, the charge against him is dismissed.
The goal is to promote and enhance public safety and reduce recidivism among mentally ill offenders, said Rebecca Clark, Skagit County's mental health program coordinator.
"Instead of a prison sentence and no treatment, we get treatment for people," Clark said. "It's the right way to respond to an individual who has committed an offense as a result of their struggle with mental illness. It's just the right thing to do."
King County officials started a mental health court in 1999. The court arose out of the tragic death of retired Seattle Fire Department Capt. Stan Stevenson two years earlier. Stevenson was stabbed to death by a mentally ill offender who had been released from jail a couple of days before the attack.
King County's court was the second of its kind in the nation. There are approximately 200 people enrolled in the court. About 60 percent of those are initially charged with a felony. The mental health court participants agree to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and enroll in the two-year program. Staff aim to provide wrap-around services, including substance abuse treatment and housing, King County District Court Judge Anne Harper said.
Harper, a former Snohomish County public defender, presides over King County's mental health court.
Studies have found that court participants are less likely to reoffend and more stable even if they're kicked out of the program. That reduces jail services and saves money, Harper said.
"It's taking care of the gap between jail and the mental commitment hospital," Harper said.
Snohomish Police Chief John Turner is all too familiar with that gap. For nearly a decade, Snohomish officers have been looking for ways to get help for a mentally ill man whom they've arrested dozens of times. They've taken him to jail for disorderly conduct and malicious mischief allegations. They've taken him to a local hospital for evaluations by mental health professionals. Under the law, he's not sick enough to be committed.
The man, now 75, ends up back in the community.
"We're already spending the resources on him and it hasn't made a difference," Turner said.
King County officials have found that treatment is cheaper than locking people up, Harper said.
Money already is being spent on these offenders, she said. It's a matter of reallocating the funds for better results, the judge said.
Advocates in Snohomish County acknowledge that they're up against a lack of funding. However, they point out that many mental health courts started small and on the backs of volunteer judges, lawyers and mental health providers.
Skagit County started its pilot program in 2004 with volunteers. Since then the court has secured permanent funding.
"We need to start out small and show that it works," said Jim Bloss, president of Snohomish County National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Bloss sees the court's potential. He turns to a parable to make his point. Think of somebody walking along a beach, finding beached starfish and tossing them back into the ocean.
The mental health court may not reach everyone, but it has the potential to make a big difference for some.
"Each starfish is important," he said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;
Story tags » CrimeProsecutionPunishmentHealth treatment

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