Mental health courts promote public safety, help those in need

Joint City/County effort provides resources for criminal mental health cases

September 09, 2014 - by Pete Smiley, Bellingham Municipal Court Commissioner, and Anne Deacon, Human Services Manager of the Whatcom County Health Department

Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham are in the process of creating a
mental health court program to promote public safety by treating criminal
offenders with mental illness in a much more cost-effective and humane
manner than traditional prosecution. It is expected that this court will be
launched by year’s end.

Instead of incarcerating people with mental illness for long periods of
time, this new approach bridges the gap between the criminal justice system
and the treatment community. A mental health court provides resources as
well as judicial oversight to connect and monitor offenders in effective
treatment services and behavior change programs. Successful participants
typically experience significant reductions in future criminal behavior.
Moreover, their likelihood of improved quality of life is greatly enhanced.

A change in approach​​

Approximately 12 to 15 percent of local jail inmates suffer from serious
mental illness. When mental illness is left untreated, the likelihood of
continued criminal behavior remains. Correctional institutions have become
the default mental health centers in our country, yet by their very nature
they are not equipped to provide the services necessary to treat the
devastating symptoms of serious mental illness. In order to stop the
revolving door to the criminal justice system, we need to change how we work
with these offenders.

The traditional approach to dealing with offenders with mental illness is
expensive, inefficient and unjust. Offenders who exhibit signs of mental
illness often serve much longer time in jail than other inmates for the same
crimes. Local taxpayers pay for expensive psychiatric care and medications
of jail inmates. While incarcerated, inmates' symptoms may worsen due to
disruption in medications, stressful conditions and victimization. Loss of
housing and connection to services also occurs during incarceration. Even
after being released on probation, many offenders lack stable housing and
support that is necessary to take advantage of treatment opportunities and
to reduce criminal behavior.

A cooperative solution

Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham have worked cooperatively to
create a local mental health court program that disrupts the cycle of
criminal behavior by treating the whole person, providing improved access to
treatment, and ensuring accountability with judicial oversight and
specially-trained probation officers. All of the offenders in these courts
are charged with misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. Bellingham Municipal
Court and Whatcom County District Court will operate these specialty
problem-solving courts with the assistance of the District Court Probation's
Behavioral Health Unit and a program manager from the Whatcom County Health

The program manager, a licensed mental health professional, will work with a
team of prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment providers, specialized
probation officers, and the judge to ensure that effective programs are
provided that promote participants’ stable recovery and reduced criminal

Frequent judicial reviews will ensure accountability, and a system of
appropriate sanctions and rewards will encourage compliance and acknowledge
accomplishments. Existing services including mental health treatment,
behavior change programs, housing, chemical dependency treatment, probation
and access to eligible benefits will be made more accessible to program
participants. The mental health courts rely entirely on existing resources,
including the county-wide behavioral health tax enacted in 2009, so there is
no additional cost to taxpayers.

Proven results nationwide

Mental health courts have been shown to work across the United States. A
five year study by Washington State University experts demonstrated that one
of the earliest mental health courts, in King County, showed a 75.9%
reduction in crime, 87.9% reduction in violent crime, and an 88% reduction
in incarceration for program participants. National studies show similar
results. Mental health courts save lives and money, and they are badly
needed in our community.

The creation of the mental health court program required years of hard work
and a cooperative effort by many people throughout county and city
government, including County Executive Jack Louws, Mayor Kelli Linville, the
Whatcom County Council, and Judges Debra Lev, David Grant, and Matthew
Elich. There is widespread agreement among judges, treatment professionals,
attorneys and criminal justice agencies that a more effective approach is
needed, and that mental health courts can work here. With the continued
support of the public and all branches of local government, we can create a
more effective, efficient and humane approach to helping offenders with
mental illness become healthy, law-abiding citizens.


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