Yakima County eyes mental health court

Yakima County plans to start a mental health court — similar to the existing drug court — in which defendants get help in stabilizing their lives and, hopefully, avoid future arrests and a return to the county’s financially ailing jail and overburdened court system.

Successful completion of the program could result in charges being reduced or dropped.

Suggested by court administrative consultant Harold Delia, the mental health court idea follows other efforts to reduce costs in the law and justice system. Those efforts, outlined by a blue ribbon panel that reviewed the court system over four months last year, focus on not jailing suspects for some nonviolent offenses, more electronic home monitoring, faster resolution of felony cases, and changes to the setting of bail.

Most of those approaches are still being developed, but Delia noted work by Prosecutor Jim Hagarty and Dan Fessler, who heads the public defender unit, is resulting in some cases being resolved more quickly.

The mental health court program, patterned after a program in Spokane County, will start as a pilot program with up to 10 offenders, Delia told other representatives of the county’s law and justice committee and county Commissioner Kevin Bouchey on Thursday. The group, which includes the prosecutor, defense counsel, courts, sheriff, clerk and the jail, is working to carry out the blue ribbon panel’s recommendations.

Bouchey told the committee he will urge fellow commissioners to approve the program and the $41,738 needed to have a court commissioner oversee the program one day per week and a clerk to schedule hearings and monitor attendance by offenders.

The money is from an existing property tax to provide community mental health services. The program will start after commissioners authorize funding.

Delia said Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health counselors will participate in the program and Medicaid reimbursement or private insurance will cover the agency’s costs.

Jail Director Ed Campbell, who said he fully supports the program, estimated as many as 20 current felony and misdemeanor offenders housed in the county jail would be eligible for the program. He said offenders with mental health problems often are repeat offenders.

Delia said the mental health court will monitor offenders to make sure they are following its requirements and taking prescribed medication.

“These are things long term to help people, and help the system in jail costs and court and defense costs,” Delia said.