Pierce County District Court opens mental health court

People charged with misdemeanors in Pierce County who suffer from mental illness could be eligible for a new program that focuses on treatment, not punishment.

The Pierce County District Court began taking referrals for its new mental health court on May 2.

Judge Kevin McCann will oversee the program on a two-year rotation.

“We are confident that this program will benefit everyone in this community,” McCann said. “…Breaking the cycle means these offenders are less likely to commit new offences.

Participants will go before McCann each week at the start and less often as they progress through the program. Outside of court, they will have treatment and contact with a probation officer throughout the week.

The traditional justice system is not enough when it comes to mental health treatment, McCann said.

“The old method of prosecution and punishment doesn’t work because they’re released into the community without treating the underlying condition,” McCann said. “…The pattern just repeats itself.”

Mental health court is different.

“We are very confident that if we can interrupt this pattern by getting the resources and the treatment they need, the whole community will be better for it,” he said.

Someone who successfully completes the program would have their charges dismissed or reduced, depending on what the lawyers negotiated. Someone who fails to complete the program and is fired from it would be given a sentence and risk jail time.

It takes about four to six weeks from the time a person is referred to the program to their appearance in court. Lawyers negotiate and a therapist assesses and diagnoses the participants.

Participants must be facing a felony or serious misdemeanor to be admitted to mental health court.

Intimate partner domestic violence offenses are not eligible, for example. DUI offenses are on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re really looking at property crimes, probably low-level, criminal trespassing, theft, unlawful conduct on buses,” McCann said. “You might see malicious mischief.”

If a participant is entitled to compensation greater than $1,500, they must repay it up to $1,500 before they can participate in the program.

The judge said they had a memorandum of understanding with a non-profit organization, the Pierce County Allianceto be the sole provider of care for participants.

This involves counseling and assessment and may include support with employment, housing, clothing and other things.

“We stabilize them in all aspects of their lives,” McCann said.

Pierce County Alliance staffing will allow for 20 attendees by the end of the first year, McCann said, and he expects to reach that number by then.

“As the program grows, they will be looking to expand their staff,” he said.

The district court model is very similar to the model Pierce County Superior Court Mental Health Court, which handles criminal cases. McCann said they also looked at similar programs run by Spokane County District Court and Everett City Court.

The treatment provider for the Superior Court program is Greater Lakes Mental Health, but McCann said he does not have the capacity to support the new District Court program.

He said the Pierce County Alliance has a few staff members ready to take on a new workload and the nonprofit has been “aggressively” seeking grants.

Behavioral Health Tax Funding

Part of the funding for the new court comes from the one-tenth of 1% behavioral health tax passed by the county council. The county began collecting this sales tax revenue (a penny for every $10 spent) last year.

The council’s biennial budget for funding included $1,305,000 for five full-time positions to staff the Mental Health Court.

This budget also included $20,880,000 to be distributed through a competitive bidding process. Applications for funding were accepted earlier this year, and recommendations for the allocation of sales tax revenue were made by the Advisory Council on Behavioral Health. These recommendations are expected to be submitted to the board for approval later this month.

The council recommended $683,206 to the Pierce County Alliance to facilitate the Mental Health Court. This would fund positions that are not funded by medical insurance, such as office work, for a year and a half. At this point, the Pierce County Alliance would reapply for county funding, federal grants or other funding sources if things go well, said Terree Schmidt-Whelan, executive director of the nonprofit. lucrative.

“If we can treat people at a lower level and not bring them into the crime process, great for their lives and the lives of everyone around them,” Schmidt-Whelan said.

The non-profit organization is also involved with other local therapeutic courts, such as drug treatment programs that focus on drug treatment. Good local data on the results of these programs is not available, said Aimee Champion, director of operations for Pierce County Alliance, because the number of participants in the county’s therapeutic courts has dropped during the pandemic.

Champion stressed data reported by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals this suggests there is an average savings of $6,000 per drug court participant and up to a 58% reduction in recidivism.

The Pierce County website says the Felony Mental Health Court started in 2015 and “had 64 attendees, 56 graduates and 7 repeat offenders” as of the end of 2019.

The district court’s drug court program currently has no participants, following the state Supreme Court’s ruling last year that declared the drug possession law unconstitutional of the state, McCann said. They simply haven’t seen qualified cases at the district court level, he said. They have an asset Veterans Treatment Court.

Pierce County Superior Court therapeutic courts include the Felony Drug Court, Felony Mental Health Court and a Family Recovery Court – a program that aims to reunite parents with children in state custody by providing parents drug treatment and other services.

Therapeutic court models are evidence-based, Champion noted.

“These are emerging, nationally recognized best practices,” she said.

This story was originally published May 6, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases affecting Pierce County. She started covering the courts in 2016. Before that, she wrote about crime and breaking news for nearly four years as an overnight reporter for The News Tribune.

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