Our Voice: Mental health diversion is about doing the right thing

A lot of really great things are happening in the Tri-Cities. While it’s easy to get excited about new outlets coming our way for fun, food and recreation, bigger things are afoot that are vital to the health of our community.

Mental health issues have rocked our community in recent months, from high-profile shootings involving police to a spate of suicides and murder-suicides leaving loved ones with lots of questions and few answers.

Mental health problems know no socioeconomic bounds, rocking those among the elite families of the community right alongside those living on the streets.

And while the worst outcomes make the headlines, many people are in crisis every single day. Often, those battling private demons end up in the county jail because they can’t control their actions or police just have nowhere else to take them.

But, now, that has changed. And because of that, lives will change.

Through a grand cooperative effort among law enforcement and other agencies and health care providers, our community is offering a pioneering program for mental health jail diversion.

Officers can now take low-level, nonviolent offenders with signs of mental illness to Transitions, a triage facility at Lourdes Counseling Center in Richland designed to aid mental health patients.

Jail is not a place for treatment and the Benton County sheriff estimates that 50 percent of those incarcerated exhibit signs of mental illness.

With proper treatment and consistent care, the hope is these people will stay out of trouble and lead better lives.

Patients must complete their designated course of treatment to avoid charges. If they fail to do so, criminal charges may follow.

The diversion program is one of just a few in the state. State law supports mental health diversion programs, but a lack of facilities has prevented many communities from embracing the idea.

With the opening of Lourdes’ Transitions facility last summer with 16 beds, the program became a possibility here.

Law enforcement officials now have an option other than jail for those committing non-felony crimes and who are clearly in need of help beyond the scope of being jailed.

Those under the influence will not be allowed into the program, nor will those who are documented gang members, or have past Class A felonies or other convictions that would prohibit eligibility for diversion.

It takes a village to find solutions to problems of the magnitude of mental health and eight law enforcement agencies signed onto the program, as did the prosecutors of Benton and Franklin counties.

In the wise words of Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg, “ … this is not only going to be able to help keep people out of the criminal justice system that truly do not belong there, but also provide some hope for their families and friends. … We see this as the right thing to do.”

Indeed it is, and further it’s evidence that when we work together, all things are possible.