Mental health court aims to divert some from sad cycle

EVERETT — Before heading into the courtroom, a Snohomish County district court judge, lawyers and a mental health professional try to help find solutions for those living with mental illness who are caught up in the criminal justice system.

The answers aren’t always simple, Everett District Court Judge Tam Bui said.

She presides over the county’s new mental health court.

The court opened its doors last month after more than a year of planning, securing funding from the County Council and developing protocols to tackle a growing issue in the courts.

“No one can dispute that the jail population has an unhealthy level of individuals with mental illnesses who don’t belong there,” Bui said. “I think the mental health court is a problem-solving court. We’re looking at ways to solve issues that can’t necessarily be addressed in a traditional court. It’s long overdue.”

So far, two people have opted into the program. A third person is in the early stages. The program could eventually manage 20 cases.

The pilot project is funded from a portion of a sales tax specifically collected to pay for services for those in the community living with a mental illness and those with substance abuse problems.

These cases would have been in the court system anyway, but are now being diverted to the mental health court in hopes of providing long-term solutions.

Participants likely will be someone “who has gone through the system over and over again,” Bui said.

The goal is to help people get stable and healthy so they can get out of the cycle, proponents say.

“We’re working out what we all need to do to make this a successful program,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Hal Hupp said.

Hupp mainly serves as the gatekeeper, deciding whether defendants are legally eligible for the program. That means looking at the current charge, as well as any past criminal history. The court generally isn’t going to accept anyone charged with a felony. Hupp also is looking at whether there is any past history of violence.

“We don’t want the program to fail because we brought in the wrong person,” he said.

The lawyers also are looking for a link between a person’s mental illness and his criminal behavior.

Participants who opt into the program must meet certain requirements, such as being engaged in treatment, meeting with court’s mental health liaison and following the recommendations of health care providers. The program also requires regular court visits.

The judge, lawyers and a mental health liaison gather before the court hearings to talk about each participant’s progress and if there are any additional issues that need to be addressed.

“These cases are expected to be dynamic because we’re dealing with people’s mental well-being,” Bui said.

Participants get much more supervision than if their cases were left on the typical trial track, said Jennifer Bartlett, an attorney with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.

“There will be more intervention earlier. There’s just a lot more supervision and monitoring,” she said.

The court will maintain jurisdiction over the cases for two years. If participants fail to meet the requirements, they face being convicted of the charge. If they successfully complete the program, the charge can be dismissed.

“Not only is it humane, but it’s the most effective way to deal with this set of the population,” Bui said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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