Pierce County to start mental health court

Pierce County Superior Court plans to launch a program next month that it hopes will reduce the population of mentally ill people in the county jail and give them an opportunity to avoid a felony record.

The co-called “mental health court” will begin Jan. 7 in the courtroom of Judge Edmund Murphy. It is thought to be the first such court in the state aimed at people charged with felony crimes.

The program aims to help at least 30 people. It will be funded for a year with a $100,000 grant from OptumHealth, the private company that provides mental health service to Pierce County under a state contract. Superior Court judges hope the program proves a success so the County Council would consider funding it from county money in 2016.

Much like the county’s successful drug court, the program will provide certain criminal defendants the opportunity to avoid incarceration and have their charges dismissed if they abide by court-ordered treatment and counseling.

“The idea is to wrap services around these folks to help them be successful,” Murphy said recently. “I’d like it to be as successful as our drug court has been over the years.”

A defendant must suffer from a documented mental illness to qualify for the program. He or she cannot be charged with a sex offense or a crime involving a weapon.

“We want to make sure the community is safe first,” said Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson, who helped lead the effort to establish the new court.

Those accepted into the program would be monitored by a team including a program manager, a doctor and two counselors. They would have frequent contact with the team and be expected to attend court periodically so a judge could monitor their progress.

“They would get intensive, robust clinical support,” Cuthbertson said.

Incarcerating the mentally ill is expensive for the county and does little to help the defendants address the reasons they wound up in jail in the first place, Cuthbertson said.

It costs nearly twice as much for the county to jail someone who is mentally ill — upward of $450 per day — compared with an inmate who is not mentally ill, Cuthbertson said.

“We have to medicate them. We have to provide greater security for them,” he said.

Judy Snow, the jail’s mental health manager, has previously pointed out that the jail is not the best place for the mentally ill to receive the treatment they need to address their illnesses.

Presiding Judge Ronald Culpepper reiterated that during a briefing to the County Council earlier this year.

“Jail is not a good place to be if you’re mentally ill,” Culpepper said. “We think it’s the right thing to do.”