Gov. Gregoire wants new verdict option for insane

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerJanuary 14, 2010 

Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a set of public safety laws on Wednesday that have some mental health advocates worried about the way people with mental illnesses will be treated by the criminal justice system.

Gregoire, flanked by a group of bipartisan lawmakers and representatives from law enforcement agencies, said the package of legislation she's requesting is a response to several incidents over the last several months, including a series of fatal police shootings and the escape of a criminally committed patient from Eastern State Hospital while on a field trip at a fair.

"In recent months, I have personally met too many grieving law enforcement families, who through the violence of a stranger have lost a mother, a father, a spouse, a son, a daughter," Gregoire said. "I pledged I would support them, and all our men and women in uniform."

She is asking the Legislature to eliminate the requirement that law enforcement officers serve 10 years before their survivors can collect death benefits in the event they're killed in the line of duty, to allow spouses to continue to collect pensions if they remarry and to waive college tuition for their children.

She also is asking for an amendment to the state Constitution to allow judges to deny bail if they're concerned someone charged with a crime is dangerous.

But it's a bill that would add another verdict option for juries and judges in criminal cases to find someone "guilty and mentally ill" that has mental health advocates concerned.

The new law would allow those found guilty of crimes who were mentally ill at the time the crime was committed -- but unable to prove an insanity defense -- to be sentenced to prison instead of a state hospital.

Those who prove an insanity defense and are found not guilty by reason of insanity would continue to be committed to state hospitals. A defendant must show he or she did not know the difference between right and wrong because of a mental illness or defect to prove an insanity defense.

Gregoire said the new verdict option would help ensure public safety by putting offenders in prisons, which offer more security than hospitals, while also providing help to those with mental illnesses.

"The rights of dangerous mentally ill offenders can't trump the safety of our families," Gregoire said. "If an offender is guilty and mentally ill, they will be guaranteed appropriate treatment inside our prison system."

Mental health advocate Gordon Bopp of Richland said the problem with Gregoire's proposal is it's unlikely that appropriate treatment will come inside a jail.

"Conditions in modern psychiatric institutions are more appropriate than jails and prisons," Bopp said. "The personnel hired (in jails) are trained to mete out punishment. We put people there based on the idea they somehow will reform their behavior based on punishment. That is not the case with someone with a mental illness. You can't punish the illness out of them."

Bopp is public policy chairman for the Washington state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and said the advocacy group has taken a stand against the bill enacting the new verdict option.

In the Tri-Cities, Bopp and other advocates have been working with law enforcement, Benton and Franklin county commissioners and the bicounty Department of Human Services on training and programs to divert people with mental illnesses into treatment instead of sending them to jail when their alleged crimes stem from illness.

He said that's the more humane and effective course of action.

"People with mental illness don't choose to be ill," he said. "When they do antisocial things -- when they have a psychological break -- they are not doing it because they want to do wrong. It is a condition of their brain that prompts these behaviors."

The Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee will have a hearing on Senate Bill 6310, which would enact the new verdict option, at 8 a.m. Friday.

-- Michelle Dupler: 360-753-0862;

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