Two years ago, Salina Edson landed in the Pierce County Jail after a tussle with Tacoma police officers. She was homeless, drug-addicted and stuck in a cycle of mental illness. It was her third arrest in eight years.
Thursday, she stood in the county’s Felony Mental Health court with a broad smile as Superior Court Judge Edmund Murphy signed an order dismissing all charges. Edson, 36, had graduated from the court program after sticking to a treatment plan and abiding by strict conditions.
“I was bipolar, alcoholic, living out on the streets, doing everything that was pretty much illegal,” she told a courtroom crowd of supporters and program participants. “Life was difficult, extreme. Now I’m two years clean and sober. I’m functional.”
The mental health court, launched in 2015, aims at individuals charged with crimes where mental-health issues play a role. It’s aimed at preventing the warehousing of people in jail or prison who are better suited to treatment than incarceration.
Backed by $100,000 in annual funding from Optum, the county’s designated mental-health provider, the program can accept 40 people, provided they meet criteria for eligibility and follow the guidelines established by their treatment team.
Backed by funding from Optum, the county’s designated mental-health provider, the program can accept 40 people, provided they meet criteria for eligibility and follow the guidelines established by their treatment team.
“We don’t take serious violent offenses,” said Murphy, who has presided over the court since its inception. “We don’t take sex offenses.”
County prosecutors determine whether defendants are eligible for the program. Upon entry, they gain a chance to have their charges dismissed after 18 months, if they abide by the terms of the court’s contract. That means regular attendance in therapy and substance-abuse treatment, and weekly court appointments, among other steps.
Edson is the program’s eighth graduate. Murphy said he hopes to expand the mental health court eventually. He noted that attendance by defendants hovers above 95 percent.
“These are people that are getting jobs,” he said. “They’re going to school, they’re paying taxes. They’re becoming productive members of society.”
These are people that are getting jobs. They’re going to school, they’re paying taxes. They’re becoming productive members of society.
Judge Edmund Murphy
Edson’s stint in the program was rocky at first. She chafed at the restrictions and relapsed. She fought her way back.
Thursday, program participants and caregivers praised her in open court. Some called her an inspiration. Another said, “Success looks amazing on you.” Tracy Saxon, Edson’s sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, said, “You helped me stay sober.”
Above all, supporters lauded her for the work of rehabilitating herself.
Jennifer Spencer, a nurse at Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare, where Edson received treatment, stood and said, “I remember when you first came in. You continue to turn weaknesses into strengths.”
Rarer words came from Deputy Prosecutor Karen Benson.
“You’ve really grown and you’ve been better for a while,” she said. “It’s been a real honor to watch you grow. You are truly a beautiful person, and you deserve this moment.”
Edson, momentarily silent, dabbed her eyes. Murphy asked a gentle question.
“Salina, you ever have a prosecutor talk to you like that?”
“Never,” said Edson.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” the judge said. “You made it.”
He opened a court file.
“I’ve got a copy of your booking photo,” Murphy said. “You looked a little broken in that picture.”
“As everyone has said, you did the work — and it’s hard work,” Murphy said. “I want to thank you for that. And it’s not the end. We call it a graduation, but it’s really just the beginning.
“You don’t ever have to go back to jail. You can do anything you want.”
Murphy stepped down from the bench, holding the order of dismissal he’d signed, and something else: a plaque emblazoned with a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”
He stepped down from the bench, holding the order of dismissal he’d signed, and something else: a plaque emblazoned with a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”
Edson thanked the judge. The courtroom applauded.
Outside the chamber, she recalled the way things used to be as she grew up in the Puyallup area. She woke up every day, self-medicating with alcohol to stop the mood swings. Her drug of choice had been methamphetamine.
The court program, coupled with her own will, required a complete lifestyle change, she said. Staying clean — a permanent task — requires her to steer straight, she said, one day at a time.
What was her next step? Not next week or month, but right now?
Edson looked at Tracy Saxon, her sponsor and friend.
“I might go to lunch with Tracy,” she said.
“Hey,” said Saxon. “I took a day off work for this. I’m down.”