Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is calling for reforms in the criminal justice system, but the budget crunch could make that difficult in the near term. So it’s encouraging to see the focus on pretrial services, which can help the county kick the old-fashioned and expensive habit of jailing people who will never get better if they’re merely warehoused.
Diversion programs for drug and alcohol abuse are well-known, but mental health court can be another effective alternative. The county estimates that about 30 percent of people jailed at any time suffer from a mental illness. The figure is 50 percent for state prisons. An inmate with a broken arm can get it fixed. Until recently, those with broken minds could get little help. Mental health court helps break the cycle of acting out and returning to jail.
In a county that’s looking at a new $245 million jail that would cost $8 million a year to run, mental health court makes even more sense. Knezovich predicts that the new jail would need to be replaced in 10 years without diversion programs and 25 years with them.
The county’s Mental Health Therapeutic Court is financed with the 0.1 percent sales tax increase that voters approved in 2005. It recently held its second graduation ceremony. The program is available to people with persistent mental illnesses who are facing misdemeanor charges. It takes one year to 18 months to complete. Some people fail to finish, and most of those who are eligible do not enroll. For more than half the people who do take part, it’s their first encounter with the mental health system.
Hopefully, more mentally ill people will choose the path taken by Vicki Palanuik, a recent graduate who saw her probation ended and criminal charges dropped. Palanuik was homeless for six years and addicted to methamphetamines. But the court helped her get medication for her bipolar disorder and manic depression. She now lives with her daughter.
Other graduates had similarly heartening stories of how the court helped them break the cycle of incarceration. For many of the nearly 500 graduates, the program is a refreshing second chance.
As Palanuik said at graduation, “They are here to help you.”
For too many years, that was a foreign concept in our criminal justice system, but budget challenges have forced changes. The result is a double dose of good news. The county is fixing minds and repairing the bottom line.
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