By John Lovick
Many of the problems we’re tackling — as taxpayers, elected leaders and families — have similar roots.
And for far too many years, that truth has been hidden.
Today, there are facts and problems that can’t be hidden or ignored, because the cost in dollars and human lives is simply too high.
It’s a fact that criminal justice costs are soaring, despite crime rates hitting historic lows.
Taxpayers see this from every angle: local police and sheriff deputies patroling their neighborhood, state troopers on the highway, county jails and state prisons — and the entire system of courts, judges, prosecutors and public defenders.
It’s a fact that in most counties, more than 70 percent of the budget goes to criminal justice.
Finally, it’s become clear that same criminal justice system isn’t designed to handle behavioral health or addiction issues.
This matters because most people who wind up in the system are struggling with one — or both — of those problems.
As a former state trooper and Snohomish County Sheriff, I can tell you that law enforcement officers in every corner of the state understand this problem. They see it every day.
Somebody who isn’t struggling with those issues will respond in a much different way. They typically do everything possible to avoid getting arrested and jailed again. They respond to incentives and change their behavior.
The trouble starts with populations that don’t respond like that. You can arrest, convict and imprison somebody over and over again, but if the underlying issue is behavioral health or addiction, the cycle will just keep going.
Like I said, the cost to taxpayers and in shattered lives is simply enormous.
We can do better.
I’d like to talk about two steps in the right direction to move us forward.
The first is House Bill 2892, which I introduced to break through the old system and find new, more effective and less expensive partnerships to make sure people get the help they need and reduces the chances of bad outcomes.
Law enforcement officers testified in the House that behavioral health is the No. 1 public safety issue facing our state. One key reform is sending mental health professionals to work in the field alongside law enforcement officers. This will help people in crisis get the help they need, help they wouldn’t get in a county jail.
The legislation also includes flexibility for law enforcement agencies to use different models to handle mental health issues, including multiple agencies joining together under one umbrella, which will help small towns and rural counties.
I’m happy to report this legislation passed the House 98-0 and is now in the Senate for consideration.
On a related issue that will improve public safety, I signed a request to help fund the Snohomish County Diversion Center, a short-term shelter aimed at addressing the root causes of those facing homelessness, mental health issues or addiction.
Legislation on the diversion center passed the House and is also being considered in the Senate.
The bottom line with House Bill 2892 and the diversion center is this: The most expensive possible option, for taxpayers and families, is chase after crisis calls and try to clean up the wreckage, only to watch the same person go through the same dangerous cycle over and over again.
There’s a better way, a way to save lives and taxpayer money — and that’s by addressing the causes of that person’s cycle.
I hope the success of these partnerships and the diversion center will lead other communities in Washington state to follow that model. New ideas, new partnerships and new approaches can make a huge difference for families, for those who proudly wear the badge and for taxpayers throughout the great state of Washington.
Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, served in the Coast Guard and Washington State Patrol before being elected Snohomish County Sheriff and Snohomish County Executive.