Prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officers and relatives have witnessed the destructive cycle for decades.
People battling mental health issues are arrested for nonviolent, low-level offenses such as trespassing, disorderly conduct or theft.
They are then sentenced to jail or probation, only to quickly end up back in the traditional criminal justice system when proper treatment isn’t provided for their mental disorders.
Now, Benton County officials, with the help of hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars, are hoping to stop the revolving door with the first Mental Health Court in the Tri-Cities.
After months of structuring the program, the court’s first participant was accepted this week. Up to 20 offenders could be approved by the first court date in early April, and officials estimate that number could reach 75 by summer 2017.
We really don’t want the program to be a get out of jail free card. It’s not a soft approach on crime, it’s just a different approach.
Tara Symons, program manager
Offenders who qualify are given the chance to have criminal charges dismissed or probation terms shortened if they complete the program, which takes a therapeutic approach and can last from one to two years.
Officials say the program should make the community safer, connect mentally ill people with treatment services and reduce the costs associated with incarceration.
“We really don’t want the program to be a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Tara Symons, program manager and social worker at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland. “It’s not a soft approach on crime, it’s just a different approach.”
Funded by public safety tax
The mental health court will be the third-largest in the state behind King and Spokane counties, officials said. Benton County will be the 13th county in Washington with such a program, with the first started in King County 16 years ago.
It will be funded solely by the public safety sales tax, which was passed by voters in 2014 and is expected to bring in $650,000 annually for the mental health program.
Participants will be required to meet regularly with court officials and attend hearings, take medication, stay away from alcohol and drugs, follow a treatment plan, seek employment or enroll in school, and keep out of trouble. They also must sign a contract.
They will be approved and monitored by a seven-person team that includes a program manager, judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, case manager, law enforcement officer and doctor.
Working with the team means offenders will deal with the same prosecutor, defense attorney and judge during their cases, something that doesn’t normally happen in the criminal justice system.
We are trying to get people out of the criminal justice who don’t belong there.
Ken Hohenberg, Kennewick police chief
To be accepted into the program, offenders must have a misdemeanor case in District Court or have prosecutors agree to reduce their felony charge.
They each must be referred to and be willing to participate in the program. Only people with serious diagnosed mental illnesses — including psychotic disorders, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder — will be accepted.
Those with a history of violent or sexual offenses, gang members and those who have used a gun during a crime are not eligible.
The program will take offenders who have yet to be sentenced and those who were placed on probation as part of their sentence. Some who fail out of the program could be accepted back in after they are sentenced.
“We are trying to get people out of the criminal justice (system) who don’t belong there,” said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg.
Modeled after Spokane program
Once offenders are screened and accepted, they must complete a four-phase process that culminates in a graduation.
It’s structured similarly to the successful drug court in Benton County, which has helped rehabilitate drug addicts for more than a decade.
The phases are designed to hold offenders accountable and help get them connected with community-based services for treatment and life skills.
The phases challenge offenders to develop a support system, seek out social services for housing and treatment, and develop a detailed plan for dealing with life after the program ends.
Offenders can be kicked out of the program if they are charged with a new crime, don’t follow requirements, fail drug tests or have poor participation.
“It’s only going to have a positive effect for the clients,” said Dr. Markus Forsythe, who is on the court team and works at Kadlec. “The structure (of the program) facilitates them being in the community.”
It’s really life-changing. It’s the sense of accountability we offer them and the ways for them to get connected to providers.
Barbara Folden, mental health court manager in Spokane
Symons and others on the court’s team — including Judge Katy Butler, who will preside over all the new cases — have visited Spokane several times in recent months to see how that county’s mental health court is run.
The Benton County court, officials said, was modeled after the one in Spokane, and the programs are almost mirror images of one another.
The program in Spokane, which started in 2007, has helped improve access to mental health treatment, reduced recidivism and improved public safety, officials said.
The Spokane court reported that 71 percent of its participants have not committed a crime since receiving treatment. The program had 199 offenders in services in 2015, according to statistics provided by court officials.
A majority of the offenders in the Spokane program are bipolar or had a major depressive disorder, statistics show.
Barbara Folden, the court manager in Spokane, told the Herald that the program has not only helped hundreds of mentally ill participants, but also save lives.
“It’s really life-changing,” Folden said of the program. “It’s the sense of accountability we offer them and the ways for them to get connected to providers.”