A statewide effort to divert people suffering from mental illnesses and chemical dependency away from jails and emergency rooms and get them into proper treatment moved a step forward today as the Metropolitan King County Council accepted the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Action Plan.
"I want to thank my colleagues from both sides of the aisle for voting to support our Action Plan to get mentally ill and drug dependent citizens out of our criminal justice system and into the treatment they need," said Councilmember Bob Ferguson, who partnered with jail administrators, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, client advocates and hospital officials to develop the Action Plan. "Today's vote sends a message that the King County Council is dedicated to saving lives and protecting our community from the repeat offenses of desperate individuals who lack the treatment they need to become contributing members of our society."
Public health and mental health care were consistently cited as top priorities by participants in the Council's extensive Citizen Engagement initiative earlier this year. When asked about public health in forums held to determine the public's priorities for the King County budget, a majority singled out drug and substance abuse treatment as a top priority for funding, with mental health care a strongly voiced and recurring concern.
A standing room audience of more than 400 spoke with one voice at the Council's June 25 Town Hall in Shoreline, as speaker after speaker called on the Councilmembers to support funding for treatment for mental health and chemical dependency.
The Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Action Plan is aimed at protecting the public by holding offenders accountable for their actions, reducing the motivation for common crimes such as car theft and ID theft, and restoring the lives of those afflicted by disabling mental illness and chemical dependency. Its proposals for a wide range of services and outcomes include:
• Giving people in crisis a safe place to rest: creating a crisis diversion center where police, doctors and family can take individuals who are having a crisis, but aren't breaking the law or are having a medical crisis;
• Keeping kids alive: providing suicide prevention grants to 19 school districts in King County to raise suicide awareness in kids, help schools develop policies, train teachers and educate parents;
• Keeping kids out of hospitals and jails when they don't need to be there: expanding crisis outreach activities and creating a reception center for children and youth to give parents, doctors and police options other than jail or the hospital for kids undergoing a mental health or substance abuse event but don't need medical attention;
• Helping people return to communities as they leave jail or the hospital: assisting the mentally ill or chemically dependent to transition out of a facility, finding them a treatment provider, helping them get their medicine, and helping them find a place to live;
• Training police to help people who are having a mental health or substance abuse related crisis: providing crisis intervention training for police and other first responders to help them keep an event from escalating to the point where someone is injured or jailed.
"Providing alternatives to incarceration is the key to helping people battling these chronic illnesses and addictions," said Council Chair Larry Gossett. "This plan complements the 'paradigm shift' we have made in our criminal justice system by providing assistance before people arrive at the emergency room or the county jail or, for those who are booked or admitted, providing information on services available after their discharge."
"This shift toward recovery instead of just punishment already is a proven successful model," said Councilmember Kathy Lambert, chair of the Council's Law, Justice and Human Services Committee. "Not only is it more humane, it also is less expensive to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment instead of funding beds in hospitals and jails, and increasing court hearings. Implementation of this plan will save taxpayer money now being spent on criminal justice and emergency medical services."
"This plan will establish a countywide effort to support programs that divert people suffering from mental illnesses and chemical dependency away from jail cells and into proper treatment facilities," said Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer.
The Action Plan is the result of a systematic, year-long process that involved the county, mental health and substance abuse experts, service providers and the justice system to integrate existing services and resources, make changes in the processing of criminal cases, and develop appropriate service and housing options. It has been endorsed by elected leaders and criminal justice administrators.
"Sending our citizens with mental illnesses and drug addictions to jail or leaving them to languish on the streets isn't humane or effective, and it isn't an efficient use of public tax dollars," said Councilmember Larry Phillips. "There's a tremendous public benefit in getting these citizens the treatment they need to get off the streets and lead productive lives."
"Throughout the past six years of choppy economic waters, the Council has consistently strived to care for our fragile populations," said Councilmember Jane Hague. "With rising teen suicide rates among girls and other key health issues, having a plan for addressing mental health needs is a critical step."
"The reality is that our citizens are paying an enormous price today for sending the mentally ill through a revolving court system when they should be treated so they stop re-offending," said Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis, who was joined in backing the plan by King County District Court Chief Presiding Judge Barbara Linde, Kathy Van Olst from the King County Prosecutor's office, King County jail director Reed Holtgeerts at the Sept. 26 meeting of the Council's Operating Budget, Fiscal Management and Mental Health Committee.
In 2005, the Washington State Legislature provided counties with the authority to enact a one-tenth of one cent sales tax to fund new or expanded mental health and substance abuse treatment services as well as therapeutic courts. Since then, county councils in seven counties have enacted that option: Spokane, Skagit, Island, Clark, Clallam, Jefferson and Okanogan counties.