Mental illness is not a crime, yet those who suffer from it often end up in jail instead of a mental health facility where they truly belong.
Without getting the help they need, they serve their time, get released and then repeat the behavior that got them into trouble in the first place.
Now, thankfully, Benton County has a way of breaking this frustrating pattern. The new Mental Health Court is finally ready and has just started accepting participants.
Benton County voters wisely supported a public safety sales tax two years ago aimed, in part, at getting this program going. County officials kept their word and made it happen. It should be well worth the annual $650,000 expected to fund it, and the cost of running this program should be offset by reducing the cost of keeping them in jail.
Similar programs around the state show that providing therapeutic justice for the mentally ill gives them a chance to rebuild their lives, as well as improve public safety and reduce recidivism.
A Mental Health Court, simply put, provides an alternative to those who need treatment more than they need punishment.
It is specifically designed for mentally ill offenders who have a misdemeanor case in District Court or a reduced felony charge. Those with a history of violent or sexual offenses, gang members and those who have used a gun during a crime are not eligible.
Also, only people who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness qualify. This would include psychotic and post-traumatic stress disorders and major depression.
Once offenders are accepted, they are required to meet regularly with court officials and attend hearings, take medication and stay clean and sober. They also must follow a treatment plan, look for a job or enroll in school.
This strategy makes so much more sense than sending a person with a mental disorder to jail or probation. Jails should be for criminals, not for people who are sick.
County officials, however, emphasize that this therapeutic approach is not soft on crime. It requires a lot of effort and commitment from the offender, who may need one to two years to complete the program. And they can be booted out if they are charged with a new crime or don’t follow the rules.
It’s a different approach, but it is not a unique experiment. Mental health courts have been established in many counties around the state, including Yakima and Spokane, so the results are documented. Spokane, for example, has had a mental health court program since 2007 and 71 percent of its participants have not committed a crime since receiving treatment, according to court officials there.
Also, last year, 199 offenders were served by the Spokane mental health court system, according to Spokane court statistics. In Benton County, up to 20 offenders could be approved for the first court date in April, and officials estimate that number could reach 75 by the summer 2017.
Creating a new avenue for the mentally ill is a wonderful addition to Benton County’s judicial system, and we are glad to see it started.
People who battle mental illness and are routinely arrested for nonviolent, low-level offenses should be given the help they need to break free of their troubled behavior.
That’s not going to happen sitting in a jail cell.