Pierce County may hire mental health probation officer

Person would help keep mentally ill out of justice system

Staff writerMay 23, 2014 

Pierce County officials are not moving ahead with a mental health court like neighboring counties have, deciding instead to address a more immediate need for intervention.

District Court Presiding Judge Maggie Ross said she wants the county to hire a mental health probation officer to help keep mentally ill offenders out of the criminal justice system. That professional would aid offenders in arranging for medications, treatment, work and housing.

Ross’ recommendation resulted from a meeting this spring of 70 people, including mental health workers and law enforcement officials.

The County Council budgeted $30,000 to examine the feasibility of starting a mental health court within District Court. Ross reported to a council committee recently on the study.

Thurston, King and Clark counties are among Washington counties with mental health courts. Ross has visited those three courts.

But from the data she’s seen, she said she’s not convinced they’ve had a major impact. And because of the additional judge and other personnel required, Ross said Wednesday: “They are extremely expensive to run.”

What professionals in Pierce County said they want is immediate intervention and prevention, she said.

“The court was a small piece of a much larger community problem,” Ross said. A mental health court “ just didn’t seem the right way to go.”

A mental health court is designed to keep mentally ill people charged with low-level offenses from being taken to local emergency rooms and the county jail. Such a court, patterned after the county’s drug court, would aim to push defendants toward treatment, reducing costs elsewhere in the county’s legal system.

About 20 percent — or 380 — of the 1,900 misdemeanor offenders on probation in Pierce County District Court have documented mental health issues.

Thurston County Mental Health Court Judge Brett Buckley defended mental health courts in an interview Friday, saying they reduce reoffense rates and save money on jail costs.

“They are, in my opinion, the most effective way we have of dealing with mentally ill people who are involved in the criminal justice system,” said Buckley, who also presides over Thurston County’s District Court.

Buckley said offenders respond to the authority of a judge more than to a probation officer.

“I strongly urge Pierce County to have a mental health court,” he said.

Ross proposes setting up a panel patterned after the county’s law and justice council that would focus on mental illness and offenders. That could improve communication between the legal system, health care providers and offenders.

“There are resources out there,” Ross said. “There simply is not communication like there should be.”

About 10 counties in Washington have mental health courts. Thurston County’s budget for its mental health court last year was about $280,000; King County’s was about $2 million.

Ross proposes hiring a full-time mental health professional with a master’s degree, assisted by a clerical worker. That would cost at least $100,000 a year, which is less than the several positions required for a mental health court. District Court has 16 probation officers.

Chuck Ramey, District Court administrator, said he believes adding a mental health professional would reduce the number of people returning to the court for violations or new charges. Ross said the new worker also would help law enforcement deal with mentally ill people in the community without bringing them to the county jail.

Ross said she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of trying a mental health court on a smaller scale: having a court calendar for offenders with mental health problems one day a week.

The judge said she plans to hold another, smaller meeting in late summer to firm up a proposal for the county’s 2015 budget.

County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, who initiated the mental health court study, said she supports Ross’ recommendation. Ladenburg said she expects the council will be receptive to adding a mental health professional.

“It is all about making sure people get the services they need,” Ladenburg said. “And in doing so, hopefully they don’t re-offend and come back into the court system.”

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647

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