Creation of Snohomish County mental health court recommended

EVERETT — Sitting around a table last month, about a dozen men and women from different backgrounds came to the same conclusion:

It’s time for a special court that will focus on helping, instead of punishing, people in Snohomish County who are living with mental illness.

“We have an offer that you can’t turn down,” Snohomish Police Chief John Turner said.

Turner is part of the advisory board that recommends how the county should spend sales tax dollars specifically collected to provide services for people living with mental illnesses and those with drug and alcohol addictions.

The board recently was asked by a local judge to support launching a mental health court. Advocates say such a court could benefit people with untreated mental illnesses who get caught up in the criminal justice system. They’ve lined up the right mix of professionals willing to volunteer to make it happen.

Members of the advisory board unanimously agreed that the county should funnel $100,000 into the project.

“People are willing to give their time because they see that the need in our community is so great,” Turner said.

For the police chief and others in the community that point came into tighter focus last week after a stabbing at Snohomish High School.

The suspect, a 15-year-old girl, is accused of attacking two other students before the start of classes. April Lutz, 14, was critically injured in the incident. Her friend, Bekah Staudacher, was injured trying to stop the assault.

Court papers indicate that the suspect was being treated for a mental illness before the Oct. 24 attack.

School records also indicate that the girl was suspended from school last spring after she made threats of violence toward another student. School officials required the girl to seek professional counseling before being allowed to return. The girl was back in school about two weeks later after a mental health professional concluded that she was safe to return.

“I think this has brought into focus that (people) who need help need a better avenue to get that help,” Turner said.

Turner declined to discuss any specifics about the suspect’s background. He pointed out, however, that there isn’t a single, simple solution to addressing the needs of those living with mental illnesses.

A mental health court could be an important tool to getting help to those who would be better served outside the legal system, Turner 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.

Because of her age and now the severity of her case, the Snohomish girl wouldn’t have been a candidate for the court, Turner said. Snohomish County’s proposed mental health court is for adults facing misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges. Under the proposal people accused of certain violent crimes also wouldn’t be eligible to participate. Priority would be given to military veterans. Participants would need to be diagnosed with a major mental illness.

So far, no evidence has been offered that the Snohomish girl’s alleged actions had any direct connection with a diagnosed mental illness.

The mental health court would present an alternative for the legal system in intervening in the lives of people who are running afoul of the law often because of an acute mental health crisis, not because of deliberate criminal behavior.

Jim Bloss, who sits on the advisory board, believes the court could fill a gap by “extracting that person out of the law and justice system and redirecting them into services and programs for help, rather than letting them continue on down the continuum, ending up in jail or prison.”

Bloss is president of the Snohomish County affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He is impressed that there has been such a big push to bring the court to Snohomish County.

A cadre of judges, public defenders, human services advocates, police and others have been quietly working behind the scenes for several months to develop the plan.

The goal, they said, isn’t to cure people but rather help clients maintain healthy lifestyles so they can stay out of the jails and courts.

Studies show that those who participate in mental health courts are less likely to reoffend.

The proponents have created a plan for a pilot project that would rest mostly on the backs of volunteers, Marysville Municipal Judge Fred Gillings told the advisory board.

District Court Judge Jeffrey Goodwin has volunteered to preside over the court. Public defenders also have agreed to volunteer their time to represent about 20 clients.

The group asked for $100,000 to pay for a year to hire a part-time case manager and treatment coordinator and a part-time prosecutor.

Now it’s up to the County Council to decide if it’ll fund the court.

It could be hard sell in light of all the projected cuts that could gut existing services for some of the community’s most vulnerable, including those living with mental illnesses.

Those on the advisory board, however, agreed that the momentum behind the project shouldn’t be ignored.

The money would come from the one-tenth of one percent sales tax specifically earmarked for services targeting mental heath and substance abuse problems. That’s about $10.5 million each year.

The idea is to grow the program slowly and cautiously, and to collect data to measure the problem, Gillings said.

One of the keys will be identifying the most appropriate clients, said Ken Stark, Snohomish County’s director of human services. The court should be reserved for those who are most likely to reoffend and are good candidates for treatment. There are other existing programs such as deferred prosecution and diversion programs that better serve lower risk offenders, Stark said.

“We’ll need a good screening system so the right people get the right intervention,” he said.

It isn’t easy deciding which programs should receive a piece of the dwindling funding, Turner said.

“I think we’d be missing an opportunity and possibly lose this energy if we waited,” he said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;

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