Mental health court could cut jail costs

The News TribuneDecember 27, 2012 

In the aftermath of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., most of the focus has been on guns – and how easy it is for disturbed individuals to obtain them. But that tragedy – as well as earlier mass killings – have also shone a light on weaknesses in mental health treatment in the United States.

In the South Sound, high-profile tragedies in the past few months have revealed the difficulties in getting help for troubled family members: the murder of Rob Meline of Tacoma, allegedly by his mentally ill son, as well as the shooting incident in a store near Wauna. A woman whose family had tried to get mental health treatment for her has been charged with killing David Long and injuring two other men.

Too often, mental illness in this country is something that is “treated” behind bars rather than in therapeutic settings. A 2006 Department of Justice study found that 64 percent of jail inmates and 56 percent of state prison inmates have mental health issues. Mentally ill inmates cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $9 billion a year.

In Pierce County, the growing number of mentally ill inmates has led to steep jail overtime costs because those prisoners are more expensive to guard. They often require segregation, suicide watch and sometimes even physical restraint to keep them from hurting themselves or others.

Because of too-lenient laws in many states – including Washington – mentally ill people often get to make decisions about whether they will be treated or not or take their medications or not. They aren’t required to get treatment until they show themselves to be a danger to themselves or others. Tragically, that means an innocent person may be injured or killed.

In addition to changing the law to make it easier for family members to get loved ones into treatment, another preventive strategy being used in many places is mental health court.

These courts are used to divert mentally ill people who have committed low-level crimes into treatment and social services instead of jail. Those who stay with the mental health court program for two years have been shown to have an 83 percent decrease in criminal behavior.

More than 200 mental health courts are up and running in the U.S. Six counties in Washington have them: King, Thurston, Kitsap, Snohomish, Skagit and Spokane. In 2013, Jefferson County will begin its mental health court.

Pierce County is surrounded by counties with mental health courts. This successful model is worth looking into to help reduce the jail population and the financial and human costs associated with untreated mental illness.

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