Leadership group is catalyst behind opening of Eastside Mental Health Court

When King County created the region's first Mental Health Court in 1999, it was designed to provide misdemeanor offenders who suffered from mental illness a way to dismantle the cycle of arrest, incarceration and reoffending.

A few years ago in a Seattle bar, a man in his late 30s turned to the woman sitting next to him and attempted to extinguish his cigarette on her face. He was arrested on suspicion of assault.

At his first hearing, the man was visibly agitated, and at times disrupted the proceedings. His family was in the courtroom that day, and his mother spoke up in his defense. She explained that her son had bipolar mood disorder, and she felt he was under-medicated.

In the past, criminal courts were not equipped to effectively deal with mental health related issues this one.

Aside from a successful insanity defense and commitment to a psychiatric facility, the traditional court role was to determine guilt and dole out punishment.

Thanks to changes in both the Seattle Municipal and King County court systems that began in 1999, the defendant in this case was referred to the mental health court.

Mental Health Court

When King County created the region’s first Mental Health Court (KCMHC) in 1999, only the second such program in the country at the time, it was designed to provide misdemeanor offenders who suffered from mental illness a way to dismantle the cycle of arrest, incarceration and reoffending.

“The goal is to decriminalize the mentally ill,” said King County District Court Judge Michael Finkle, who served on the task force that created the mental health court. With proper treatment of their illness, “we decrease the behaviors that brought them to court.”

While KCMHC is a part of the criminal court system, it goes beyond punishing the criminal behavior and brings together experts from the mental health system and the judicial system to create a personalized treatment plan for the defendant.

As the KCMHC program proved successful and gained national recognition for its effectiveness, officials began to explore expansion of the system. From its inception, the court served all of King County. But it met at the Seattle courthouse on 3rd Avenue, so when an offender was referred to KCMHC from one of the Eastside communities like Issaquah or Sammamish, this created transportation difficulties.

An obvious solution to the problem would be to establish mental health courts within the outlying communities providing better access to the services the offenders need. However, when the recent economic crisis hit and tax revenues diminished, expanding the court amid the budget crisis seemed unlikely.

Community Involvement

At the same time as hope for an Eastside mental health court was dwindling, a group of men and women began a three-year curriculum with Leadership Eastside (LE), an organization that brings together individuals, businesses and non-profits with the goal of developing community leaders in Eastside cities.

After hearing Redmond Mayor John Marchione speak of the need to reduce costs associated with mental health and provide options for the mentally ill citizens stuck in the jail system, the LE team committed their project to establishing an Eastside version of KCMHC.

Though budget cuts threatened the project, the team persevered and focused on bringing together community stakeholders from King County, Eastside cities, local businesses and non-profit organizations.

“Without the work of the Leadership Eastside group, this may not have happened,” said Mike Rynas, a board member with the Eastside branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots organization that advocates for the mentally ill.

Eastside Court is in Session

At lunchtime on Friday, July 9, a small group gathered at the King County District Court in Issaquah for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that launched the Eastside Mental Health Court. With a snip of the red and gold ribbon, a two-year collaboration between the LE team and stakeholders like NAMI-Eastside, Mayor Marchione, and KCMHC judges and administrators, came to fruition. Many of the people involved with the project understand the needs of the mentally ill from personal experience.

“I work with families in crisis everyday. We need to stop [the cycle] before it gets to prison time and felonies,” said Rynas, whose daughter suffers from schitzophrenia. “With this, everybody wins.”

The goal of the Eastside mental health court is the same as its well-established Seattle sibling – to break the cycle of recidivism among mentally ill offenders and to integrate them back into society.

After a person is arrested for a misdemeanor offense, and it is determined the offender has a mental illness, they are referred to mental health court. The defendant is then assigned a mental health court team that includes a judge, prosecutor, defender, court liaison and probation officer. Participation in the program is voluntary and the defendant must be able to contribute to his or her individualized treatment plan.

While every case is unique, many times the offender is homeless and lacks access to proper medication.

“Often they don’t have any insight into their illness, and they don’t know how to get treatment,” Finkle said.

They also lack the faculties needed to navigate the court system. Going through the regular criminal court process, mentally ill defendants spend an average of 28 days in jail, while non-mentally ill arrestees cycle through in about 17 days. And that incarceration doesn’t address the biological problem that led to the criminal behavior in the first place, so without proper treatment, many will reoffend and possibly escalate beyond misdemeanors to felonies.

The mental health court walks the defendants through the daunting process of seeking treatment and connecting with social service agencies.

Proponents say that, in addition to improving the welfare of the defendant and increasing public safety, mental health courts decrease taxpayer costs. The actual results can be hard to quantify in dollars. A 2007 report by the RAND corporation of a similar system in Allegheny County, Penn. found that over the long term these types of mental health court programs “may actually result in net savings to government, to the extent that participation is associated with reductions in criminal recidivism and reductions in the utilization of the most expensive types of mental health treatment.”

A Successful End

For the defendant in the above cigarette case, mental health court was the way to get him the right medical attention for his condition.

“At first he remained agitated at the hearings,” said Judge Finkle. “We saw him weekly, and once the medication took effect – after about four weeks – he was like night and day.”

He has now completed the two-year program established by the Seattle Municipal Mental Health Court team, and hopefully, he will remain a contributing member of society.

Resources for more information or assistance:

King County Mental Health Court

National Alliance on Mental Health-Eastside

Leadership Eastside