Spokane County looks to extend mental health court tax
Heidi Everett stopped outside a Spokane County courtroom and offered to show the scars on her wrists, evidence of numerous suicide attempts.
She had just appeared in mental health court to update District Court Judge Randy Brandt on her progress in controlling her depression and alcoholism.
Everett is participating in a program designed to keep people with mental health and addiction problems out of jail and hospitals, and off the streets. It costs $7.1 million a year.
Now Spokane County commissioners will decide whether to renew the tax that pays for the program. They will hold a public hearing this week. Commissioners have indicated they’re inclined to renew the tax through 2019.
The program provides treatment, greater accountability and housing for hundreds of people who might otherwise drift from crisis to crisis and arrest to arrest. It’s widely considered a success and is credited with dramatically reducing jail costs.
Everett, 42, said the mental health program has helped her.
“I’m doing a lot better this year,” she said.
After an arrest for vandalizing an office at her state-funded residence, she was screened and accepted into the county’s mental health court. She agreed to comply with two years of counseling, therapy and intensive monitoring to avoid jail.
Her problems are so severe that she has a full-time caregiver, who accompanied her to one of her regular check-ins with Brandt.
“I’ve had a long, bumpy road, but I’ve learned a lot of steps,” she said during an interview.
Her caregiver, Jessica Kent, said, “This year has been a complete turnaround.”
Tax used for court, housing, outpatient services
County commissioners enacted the mental health tax in 2006 following an advisory ballot the previous November in which 58 percent of voters approved.
The money was needed to help avert a mounting mental health crisis exacerbated by federal and state spending cuts.
Spokane was sending too many patients to Eastern State Hospital, drawing fines for overuse of the state-run facility.
Today, the mental health treatment system has been stabilized, in part because of the tenth-of-a-penny tax, which was extended in 2008.
“The alternative to not having that money is we put more people in jail,” County Commissioner Al French said.
“I’ve always been a supporter of this tax because it’s a much more humane way of dealing with people who have challenges in their lives.”
But French said he expects an accounting of the money to show the program’s value to taxpayers.
Here is where the $7.1 million from the tax last year went:
• Mental health court got $760,000 for 383 clients.
• A therapeutic drug court received $344,000 for 145 defendants.
• Mental health outpatient services received $800,000 for 663 patients.
• Geiger Corrections Center got $40,000 for treatment for 20 prisoners.
• Residential room and board took up the largest amount, $5.2 million for 403 mental health clients housed under contract with 20 treatment providers.
One of those contractors is Mallon Place in West Central Spokane, an assisted living facility that helps keep some of the county’s most serious patients out of Eastern State Hospital or jail.
Peter LaPlante, who owns the facility with his wife, Candace, said they provide a safe environment for patients, using a combination of funding sources to make it pencil out.
The cost to the county is $49 a day for each patient.
Mallon Place also offers more independent apartment-style living for 20 patients using county subsidies.
“I don’t know what a better model would look like,” LaPlante said.
Defendants have led chaotic lives
Judge Brandt took over the mental health court docket about two months ago and discovered that its defendants initially resist change. But as the threat of jail forces them to take their medications and participate in therapy, “the light goes on,” he said.
Initially, defendants appear before the judge once a week to update him on progress.
“We’d rather have them coming into this court every week than having them live in the community committing more crime,” Brandt said.
Russell McKeen, 43, appeared before the judge recently to answer for a random urinalysis test that revealed he was breaking the terms of his agreement with the court.
Brandt told McKeen he was in danger of being taken off the program and sent back to jail.
“You’ve got a better situation” being in mental health court, Brandt said. “Don’t squander that with positive UAs (urinanalyses).”
In an interview after the appearance, McKeen acknowledged that sticking with his treatment plan is hard. But, he said, “It’s a good program. It helps a lot of people.”
Brandt said that, like McKeen, most of the defendants who appear before him have led chaotic lives, including sleeping under bridges and panhandling to survive.
He calls the court a “wraparound program” that offers things like bus passes to get to court and appointments; money for emergency heating assistance; and vouchers for clothing and food.
County statistics show that of the 383 defendants in the program last year, only half were enrolled in mental health programs at the time they were arrested.
The most frequent diagnoses are major depressive, bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders. Three-quarters of the defendants also had substance abuse problems.
The split between men and women was nearly 50-50.
The county says from 2005 to 2011 the number of days clients spent in jail went down by nearly half after they enrolled in mental health court, resulting in significant cost savings.
Jamie Linder, 42, completed the two-year program earlier this month and appeared for a “graduation” before the judge.
He said he has learned coping skills for the brain injury he suffered in 2007 when he nearly died in a vehicle accident in which he was driving while intoxicated.
The Air Force veteran got into the court on charges of impaired driving, driving with a suspended license and failure to drive with an ignition interlock.
“This has been a total blessing for me,” he told the judge. “If it wasn’t for this court, I’d be in jail today.”