OLYMPIA -- Changing Washington law to allow criminal defendants to be found guilty but mentally ill probably wouldn't have much effect on the state mental hospital system, a high-ranking state official said Friday.
But it could add significant costs to the Department of Corrections, and taxpayers, said David Weston, the chief of mental health services for the Department of Social and Health Services.
"It could be very expensive," Weston said in an interview after discussing mentally ill criminals with the House Human Services Committee.
A proposal the Legislature considered earlier this year would have allowed defendants to be found "guilty but mentally ill." It didn't pass, but is getting new scrutiny after the escape of Phillip Paul during an Eastern State Hospital "field trip" to the Spokane County Fair last month.
Weston said he believed only a few defendants who are now found not guilty by reason of insanity would be found guilty but mentally ill if the law changed. The change would have a much bigger impact on defendants who have a mental illness and are currently being found guilty.
Under the law, those who successfully use the insanity defense are sent to a mental hospital. Those found guilty are sentenced to prison.
Department of Corrections officials estimate nearly one in four inmates in the state prisons has a serious mental illness. That number has steadily increased since 2000, they told the committee Friday.
Corrections revised its health plans to provide better care for mentally ill inmates, and works with Social and Health Services to get better care for mentally ill inmates before they are released.
But if a court were to declare a defendant guilty but mentally ill, the state would have to do more, Weston said: "It would place an extra burden on the state for specific treatment" throughout their incarceration.
Committee Chairwoman Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, said she expects more discussion about adding a guilty but mentally ill option to state law next year. She's not sure what chance it has to pass particularly in a year where budgets are being cut.
"It's not a simple proposition," she said. "There's not a clear direction to go that way."
Dickerson said she has confidence in DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus's ability to correct any problems highlighted by Paul escape, and doesn't know yet of any changes the Legislature would need to make.
"The Legislature doesn't need to micromanage," she said.