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‘Guilty but mentally ill’ might be costly

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 state official said Friday.

But it could add significant costs to the Department of Corrections, and for taxpayers, said David Weston, the chief of mental health services for the Department of Social and Health Services.

A proposal the Legislature considered earlier this year would have allowed defendants to be found “guilty but mentally ill.” It didn’t pass, but it’s getting another look after the escape of Phillip A. Paul during an Eastern State Hospital field trip to the Spokane County Interstate 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 mental illnesses 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 have a serious mental illness. That number has steadily increased since 2000, they told the House Human Services Committee on Friday.

Corrections revised its health plans to provide better care for mentally ill inmates, and it 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.

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