Jefferson County’s mental health court ready to go

By Joe Smillie
For Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — A new court program designed to divert the mentally ill from the courts to treatment should be up and running early next year, Jefferson County officials say.

County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Rosekrans said the mental health court will work similar to the county’s Drug Court, focusing on providing treatment to offenders who have mental health issues instead of putting them into prison.

“The criminal justice system just isn’t suited to deal with a lot of those issues,” Rosekrans said.

“This is kind of keeping them on a tight leash.”

Sam Markow, Jefferson’s mental health director, said county officials will meet early next month to discuss when such cases would be heard.

He estimated that the new court program could be running by February.

Progress of the mental health court was delayed by the Nov. 6 election so staff could brief new Superior Court Judge Keith Harper on the mental health court, Markow said.

He and a contingent of county law officials were slated to observe Skagit County’s mental health court program in Mount Vernon earlier this month, but were blocked when winds kicked up Admiralty Inlet waters and shut down the Coupeville ferry.

“We’re anxious to get started,” said Markow. “So far, I think we’re ready to go.”

The program puts people with mental illness who have committed nonviolent crimes into treatment that includes weekly progress appearances before a judge.

For Markow, that makes it easier to ensure defendants keep taking their medications.

“It gives us another shot to engage those that are willing and able, to motivate people toward treatment,” Markow said.

Jail often works against the mentally ill, Rosekrans said.

Mentally ill prisoners often begin to look up to some of the more veteran inmates who in turn find ways to tap social security payments or steal medication. Jail also tends to put the mentally ill at higher risk for abusing drugs and alcohol, Markow said.

Markow said there are five or six people in Jefferson County for whom he thinks the mental health court could have an immediate impact.

The mental health court differs from an insanity plea, said Rosekrans, in that defendants will have to be deemed competent of understanding their charges and rights.

Rosekrans said the idea gained enthusiastic acceptance from judges, police agencies and the Safe Harbor substance abuse center.

Under a grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Administration, the Jefferson County squad consulted with officials who have run mental health courts in Skagit, Spokane and Thurston counties.

“All the different stakeholders saw a problem. We just needed somebody to pick up the ball,” Rosekrans said.

Deputy prosecutor Miriam Norman will act as administrator, but Rosekrans said he would like to hire a coordinator who could devote all their time to the mental health court.

“I understand when times are tight, there’s some things you’re going to have to put off for a couple of years,” said Rosekrans.

“Unfortunately, somebody with mental illness can’t wait for a couple of years.”

To fund the coordinator, Rosekrans noted his 2013 salary of $126,369 is $22,463 lower than what it would be had the county matched the state’s $74,416.

“We could take that $22,000 and put it towards hiring a coordinator,” said Rosekrans.

“That’s my contribution to the war effort.”

Last modified: December 24. 2012 5:47PM
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