Mental health courts promote public safety, help those in need

Bellingham Municipal Court building

Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham are in the process of creating a mental health court program to promote public safety by treating criminal offenders with mental illness in a much more cost-effective and humane manner than traditional prosecution. It is expected that this court will be launched by year’s end.

Instead of incarcerating people with mental illness for long periods of time, this new approach bridges the gap between the criminal justice system and the treatment community. A mental health court provides resources as well as judicial oversight to connect and monitor offenders in effective treatment services and behavior change programs. Successful participants typically experience significant reductions in future criminal behavior. Moreover, their likelihood of improved quality of life is greatly enhanced.

A change in approach​​

Approximately 12 to 15 percent of local jail inmates suffer from serious mental illness. When mental illness is left untreated, the likelihood of continued criminal behavior remains. Correctional institutions have become the default mental health centers in our country, yet by their very nature they are not equipped to provide the services necessary to treat the devastating symptoms of serious mental illness. In order to stop the revolving door to the criminal justice system, we need to change how we work with these offenders.

The traditional approach to dealing with offenders with mental illness is expensive, inefficient and unjust. Offenders who exhibit signs of mental illness often serve much longer time in jail than other inmates for the same crimes. Local taxpayers pay for expensive psychiatric care and medications of jail inmates. While incarcerated, inmates' symptoms may worsen due to disruption in medications, stressful conditions and victimization. Loss of housing and connection to services also occurs during incarceration. Even after being released on probation, many offenders lack stable housing and support that is necessary to take advantage of treatment opportunities and to reduce criminal behavior.

A cooperative solution

Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham have worked cooperatively to create a local mental health court program that disrupts the cycle of criminal behavior by treating the whole person, providing improved access to treatment, and ensuring accountability with judicial oversight and specially-trained probation officers. All of the offenders in these courts are charged with misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. Bellingham Municipal Court and Whatcom County District Court will operate these specialty problem-solving courts with the assistance of the District Court Probation's Behavioral Health Unit and a program manager from the Whatcom County Health Department.

The program manager, a licensed mental health professional, will work with a team of prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment providers, specialized probation officers, and the judge to ensure that effective programs are provided that promote participants’ stable recovery and reduced criminal behaviors.

Frequent judicial reviews will ensure accountability, and a system of appropriate sanctions and rewards will encourage compliance and acknowledge accomplishments. Existing services including mental health treatment, behavior change programs, housing, chemical dependency treatment, probation and access to eligible benefits will be made more accessible to program participants. The mental health courts rely entirely on existing resources, including the county-wide behavioral health tax enacted in 2009, so there is no additional cost to taxpayers.

Proven results nationwide

Mental health courts have been shown to work across the United States. A five year study by Washington State University experts demonstrated that one of the earliest mental health courts, in King County, showed a 75.9% reduction in crime, 87.9% reduction in violent crime, and an 88% reduction in incarceration for program participants. National studies show similar results. Mental health courts save lives and money, and they are badly needed in our community.

The creation of the mental health court program required years of hard work and a cooperative effort by many people throughout county and city government, including County Executive Jack Louws, Mayor Kelli Linville, the Whatcom County Council, and Judges Debra Lev, David Grant, and Matthew Elich. There is widespread agreement among judges, treatment professionals, attorneys and criminal justice agencies that a more effective approach is needed, and that mental health courts can work here. With the continued support of the public and all branches of local government, we can create a more effective, efficient and humane approach to helping offenders with mental illness become healthy, law-abiding citizens.


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