February 13, 2015

Mental Health Court instills stability, but funding shortfalls keep it small

2-13-2015 Washington:

Nearly two years ago, Destini Baker found herself behind bars for being in possession of a stolen vehicle while high on methamphetamine.

Baker, 21, suffers from bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. She’s been in and out of mental health treatment since age 3.

“It’s been really difficult,” she said on a recent morning while sitting in Yakima County Superior Court. “The reason I used to do drugs is because it made me feel like a normal person.”

For the past year and a half, Baker has been in Mental Health Court, a specialized program that aims to keep those suffering from mental illness and facing criminal charges out of jail and in treatment. Those who enter the program can avoid criminal charges if they abide by the court’s terms and follow through with mental health and any other treatment that may apply, such as for drug and alcohol addiction.

But a lack of funds is keeping the court program small, with a maximum caseload of 12, far fewer than the growing number of mentally ill people landing in the judicial system here.

Baker entered the program after spending six months in the Yakima County jail.

“You have to really want to put your heart and everything into this program,” Baker says. “Mental Health Court helps you find solutions to the issues you are dealing with.”

Judges and jail officials have seen it for years — mentally ill people repeatedly cycling through the judicial system. Most are arrested for misdemeanor crimes, serve their time in county jail and are released, only to return a short time later for a repeat offense. The scenario continually plays out in courtrooms and jails across the country in the wake of a movement that began in the 1970s to phase out public psychiatric hospitals. Many who would be eligible for a bed in those hospitals are finding them in jails and prisons instead.

Mental health courts are an attempt to break that cycle. Yakima County started its program about two years ago.

Court officials are looking for money to expand and handle more cases, but additional funds are hard to come by. And more time is needed to determine if the program is successful before county commissioners will dole out the roughly $150,000 to $200,000 needed annually to double the court’s size.

There are currently nine cases, including Baker’s, in the program, which has an annual operating budget of $52,557. Commissioners allocated that money under a two-year pilot project.

A deputy prosecutor and a public defender have absorbed those cases into their regular work schedules. Probation officers and a team of counselors from Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health work with each person in the court, which is presided over by Superior Court Commissioner Robert Inouye. A committee has been formed to track the cases.

“We’re waiting for data,” says Commissioner Kevin Bouchey. “We may need to continue the pilot project until 2016 — it would be a challenge to make a change, increase funding, this year.”

Understanding that it’s unlikely the court will double this year, Court Administrator Robyn Berndt is requesting $20,000 so the court can mandate drug and alcohol tests.

“We don’t have any money for treatment; we don’t have any money for assigned counsel; we don’t have any money for the prosecutor,” Berndt says. “Everybody is donating their time — they’re just squeezing it into their already busy schedule.”

County jail

A handful of counselors from Comprehensive Mental Health work at the jail, conducting mental health evaluations of inmates during booking, and providing services, including medications, to those who need them. Corrections officers rely on the decadelong working relationship with Comprehensive to keep those suffering from mental illness stable and on their medications, a difficult task at best, says Department of Corrections Director Ed Campbell.

“Sometimes they stop taking their medications and begin to act up and have to be housed in a special unit as a result,” Campbell says. “It makes for a constant juggling act for corrections officers. We have to try and balance what’s best for the inmate and at the same time balance out the safety of officers.”

There are more than 800 inmates currently held at the jail; about 15 percent have mental illness, Campbell says.

Their criminal charges range from trespass to murder, but most are low-level, repeat offenders, Corrections Chief Scott Himes says: “It’s a revolving door. I mean, we’ve released them and had them come back through the doors a few hours later.”

Often they stop taking their medications after stabilizing, thinking they are OK, and that’s when problems begin, Campbell says.

Corrections officers are trained to deal with mental illness, but clashes still occur. “Many come in on a low-level crime but rack up assault charges after clashing with corrections officers,” Campbell says.

One inmate now housed on the fourth floor, where the most violent offenders are kept, has committed 14 assaults on corrections officers, and another, a woman, has racked up five assaults in a matter of months, he says.

“They’re very much a danger to officers in the facility,” he says. “It usually takes three officers to move one inmate suffering from mental illness because they are difficult to deal with.” ..Continued.. by Phil Ferolito

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