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New Clallam County court to begin this month

Peninsula Daily News - 8/8/2022

PORT ANGELES — By the end of August, Clallam County District Court will begin a mental health court program that could allow those with mental health issues to seek treatment to keep convictions off their records, depending on the nature of the crimes committed.

District I Court Judge Dave Neupert spoke to the Clallam County Resilience Project on Tuesday, explaining the ways in which a mental health court program differs from regular court proceedings.

"It's a therapeutic court. So the focus is on rehabilitation rather than punishment following conviction," Neupert said.

"In mental health court, we are interested in having participants that are facing criminal charges and are willing and interested in getting treatment for mental health issues, to gain good mental health and to deal with their pending criminal charges."

Mental health court programs are funded through a local 0.1 percent sales tax, which was proposed by retired state Sen. James Hargrove in 2002 to be used for drug treatment programs, mental health and therapeutic courts.

Clallam County adopted the sales tax ordinance in 2006 and in 2022 received a $231,500 state grant to establish and operate the mental health court.

County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols led the effort to create a mental health court in 2021, saying the way the criminal justice system dealt with people with mental health issues charged with crimes was "clumsy at best and I would argue largely ineffective."

Mental health courts provide a structure that allows for the provision of wraparound services for people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other afflictions, he said.

It would function much like Clallam County's long-established drug courts.

Those who volunteer to enter mental health court would have their original charges dismissed if they meet the stringent requirements of the one- to two-year program.

Sheriff Bill Benedict estimated last year that 10 to 20 percent of jail's population could benefit from a mental health court.

"The prosecuting attorney and defense attorney discuss whether or not to refer a defendant to mental health court, and then the prosecutor will refer the case to the court," Neupert explained on Tuesday.

"If a referral is made to the mental health court, then the mental health court staff meets to discuss the defendant's case and if they are eligible to participate. Once approved, they can begin the program."

Participants would need to receive a mental health assessment so that the court may understand their diagnosis and prognosis, providing a good prediction of their likelihood of successfully completing the program.

Programs would typically be 12-24 months, broken up into different phases, depending on the case.

Those who have committed violent crimes will be exempt from the program.

"It certainly not for everyone who is facing criminal charges," Neupert said.

"It is designed to work with folks who have diagnosed and treatable mental health issues that want to get services for it and also to not end up with a criminal conviction."

In the initial phase, the person's involvement would be intensive, beginning with likely a weekly involvement with being in mental health court, Neupert said.

"We have a partnership with Peninsula Behavioral Health and will work with other treatment providers so that we understand what the outline is for services and have a way of measuring whether participants are applying themselves by getting the recommended services and whether they are responding to them," Neupert said.

When participants show progress in each phase, they can move on to the next until they graduate.

"Good mental health requires a full-time, perhaps lifelong commitment, but we want to recognize folks that have made the effort to do what's expected of them in this program and ultimately get their charges dismissed," Neupert said.

Neupert said several referrals for the mental health court program have already been made in Clallam County District Court and will be the first class of participants that would likely graduate in the coming years.

Programs like this have shown to have a larger impact on the community by reducing recidivism rates, which in turn reduces prosecution and jail costs, he said.