Court takes new approach to mental health, crime


Many people suffering from mental illnesses are not getting treatment, but are instead getting jailed – or worse. This often exacerbates their mental health woes and usually results in recidivism as the cycle of mental health, crime and jail continue.

One court in Yakima County, Wash., is trying to change that with a novel approach.

Although mental illnesses are not often correlated with violent behavior, they are often associated with criminal action or victimization. The mentally unstable often find themselves in situations where they are either labeled as criminals or being victimized by them. Sometimes the line between the two is blurred.

An Alternative to Incarceration

The Yakima court is proactively working towards halting the recidivism that is so often associated with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. A special mental health court was established to create an alternative to jail and prison. The idea is that those with mental illnesses are better served, and more likely to break the crime cycle, if they receive treatment and encouragement to remain on that treatment.

The scheme begins after the person has been jailed for committing a crime. The court will determine if the person has mental illness. People with mental health issues that could be related to their criminal behavior (most commonly schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or chronic depression) will be paired with a mental health team that will find a treatment regimen and solution for their disorders and on the road to recovery.

Once the person is deemed mentally stable enough, he or she is released and can often void the long, difficult sentence that he or she may have faced – often avoiding prison altogether. Once out of jail, the individual is tasked with continuing his or her treatment and remaining mentally stable and healthy through it.

In short, the individual gets a second chance.

Reducing Crime and Lowering Costs

For now, the court is limited in its scope and capability and is considered a test program. Similar programs for repeat drug, gang and other offenders have found some success in reducing repeat offenses and probation violations, diverting some people from prison at minimal cost to the country.

A similar mental health court in Spokane County, Wash., has had positive outcomes, saving an estimated $3 million in costs from jail and prison incarcerations. The longest-running mental health court is in King County, Wash., which has been in operation for 14 years and seen widely-acclaimed success during its ground-breaking tenure.

Statistics in Washington show that about 15 percent of people incarcerated for repeat, often escalating, offenses suffer from mental illnesses. About half of those individuals likely qualify for mental health court.

Other areas of the country are taking a similar approach, with various nuances to their systems, and they are finding positive results as well. Combating the rising problem of mental health issues and criminal justice is a problem that cannot be solved by merely building more jails and increasing arrests.


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