County expands Mental Health Court to Issaquah
July 13, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
King County plans to expand Mental Health Court — a groundbreaking program launched in the aftermath of a tragedy — to Issaquah by late July.
Launched as a pilot program in February 1999, the court uses a team approach to place defendants in treatment for mental illness. Supporters said the program bridges the gap between mental health treatment and criminal justice systems.
The court accepts mentally ill misdemeanor offenders, and then monitors them during court-ordered treatment. Participants waive a trial and agree to participate in treatment.
The court assigns a team — including a judge, prosecutor, public defender, treatment court liaison and probation officers — to monitor defendants throughout the process. Participants can be jailed for straying from the program.
District Court and elected officials announced the expansion July 9 at the Issaquah Courthouse.
District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde, King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, attorneys and mental health advocates crowded into a light-filled atrium and listened to officials describe the expansion as a metal detector chirped in the background.
Since the county formed the court, the service has only been available at the main courthouse in downtown Seattle.
“We wanted, the county wanted and the cities wanted, access to the resources on a broader scale,” Linde said the day before the announcement.
In addition to Issaquah, the county also added Mental Health Court at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. Mental Health Court judges, prosecutors and employees plan to rotate among the three courthouses. Mental Health Court Judge Anne Harper will hear cases in Issaquah on Mondays and Fridays starting later this month.
Linde credited Leadership Eastside — a nonprofit leadership development program — for working to expand Mental Health Court beyond Seattle.
Members of the 2011 graduating class took on the court project as part of the leadership program and lobbied the county to expand the program despite threatened budget cuts.
“It almost feels like we rolled that huge boulder and actually made it to the top of the hill,” team member Karin Duval said after the announcement.
Fixing a broken system
Linde described the Eastside and South King County expansions as “years in the making.”
The impetus for the program came after a schizophrenic transient, Dan Van Ho, stabbed retired Seattle firefighter Stan Stevenson as he and his family walked through the International District after a Seattle Mariners game in August 1997.
Ho had been released from the King County Jail 11 days earlier, after a state psychiatrist found him to be mentally incompetent to stand trial for a theft charge. Linde described Ho as someone “who the system failed.”
The current U.S. attorney for Western Washington, Issaquah native Jenny Durkan, represented the Stevenson family after the death. The family received a $5.5 million settlement from the county in a negligence suit. The case also prompted county leaders to reform how the criminal justice system handled mentally ill offenders.
Not long after the stabbing, then-County Executive Ron Sims convened a statewide task force to re-envision the county criminal justice system. The group acted as a catalyst for the Mental Health Court.
“We realized very early on that it was a really good thing,” Linde said. “Outcomes were improved for the people that found themselves in Mental Health Court.”
In November 2007, King County Council members enacted a one-tenth of a cent sales tax increase to pay for mental illness and substance abuse programs, including the court.
But budget woes threatened to gut the program as officials struggled to bridge a budget gap last fall.
Lambert, the Issaquah representative on the nine-member council, led the budget team then. The budget writers steered sales tax dollars to keep the Mental Health Court open, and tapped into the funding source to expand the program to Issaquah and Kent.
Lambert also reflected on the groundbreaking nature of the program. King County became the second jurisdiction in the nation — after Broward County, Fla. — to create a mental health court.
“When I go on national tours, people always say, ‘You’re from King County. That’s an innovative place that really cares about people,’” Lambert said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.
Who is eligible for Mental Health Court?
People with a major mental illness who commit a misdemeanor offense in King County are eligible. The offender must be amenable to treatment, competent to opt in to the program and agreeable to the court’s conditions, supervision and close monitoring.
How does a case reach Mental Health Court?
If a mentally ill offender has been charged in a District Court case, the case can be transferred to Mental Health Court.
If the person has been charged in Issaquah or another suburban city, he or she can request for the case to be referred to the Mental Health Court prosecutor.