Clallam County officials are moving forward with establishing the 16th mental health court in the state of Washington by Dec. 31.
Backed by a courthouse hearing room full of mental health, city, law enforcement and military veteran officials, Dave Neupert and Mark Nichols won over county commissioners on July 19 on a long developing proposal for establishing a panel to route non-violent Port Angeles District Court 1 offenders with mental health diagnoses into treatment instead of jail.
The pitch by Neupert, the District Court 1 judge who will preside over the program, and Nichols, the prosecuting attorney who makes criminal charging decisions, resulted in commissioners directing county Administrator Rich Sill to draw up a budget resolution, which does not require a public hearing for board passage.
“We’re doing everything we can to set this up for success,” commissioners’ chair Mark Ozias said.
Neupert noted the broad support among those in the room, “folks that might not otherwise all agree that today really is Monday do agree that this is an effective proposal for Clallam County.”
Sill said after the board’s morning work session that he expects to have the resolution in hand for the commissioners’ consideration by late fall.
Operating cost for a full-time court coordinator, a part-time administrative assistant, startup expenses for supplies and a workspace within District Court 1 offices are estimated to run between $150,000 and $250,000 annually, Nichols said in his presentation, available in the work session agenda packet on the commissioners meetings’ web page at clallam.net.
Nichols and Neupert are seeking budget authorization for three to five years.
Commissioner Randy Johnson said five years made more sense than three to judge the program’s impact, recalling board discussions of a mental health court program in 2020.
“I was pretty, what do I want to say, pretty succinct, in why do we keep studying this? We need to either get on with it or drop it, and that’s exactly where you’ve taken this, so I appreciate it very much,” Johnson said.
The court’s operations would be funded with reserves from a 15-year-old one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax fund for substance abuse, mental health and therapeutic court programs known as The Hargrove Fund, established under legislation sponsored by former 24th District state Sen. Jim Hargrove.
County Chief Financial Officer Mark Lane said he can determine the precise impact of the expenditures on the fund once he receives more precise information about the program.
The fund, which covers expenses for the county’s drug court and juvenile services court, also has expenditures of $1.2 million to non-county programs such as Peninsula Behavioral Health, Lane said in a separate interview.
He said the fund had an ending balance of $2.6 million in 2020 and will have a projected ending balance of $2.5 million in 2021.
While the program would eat into the reserve fund, over time, the fund’s expected revenue stream would grow at a faster clip than overall expenditures, Lane predicted.
Mental health court proceedings, which would be public, would be Mondays in the historic second-floor courthouse courtroom.
Neupert and Nichols hope to get the court up and running by Dec. 31, and they want Forks-area District Court 2 to take part in the program.
Mental health court participants would be required to obtain a mental health evaluation and follow treatment recommendations to avoid jail time.
“The manner in which the criminal justice system has been dealing with folks who are mentally ill, in my personal opinion — having been in this business for more than 20 years — has not been demonstrated to be particularly effective,” Nichols said.
“This is something that cannot be done solely within the confines of the criminal justice system.”
Harry Gasnick of Clallam Public Defender said he supports the proposal.
“There are an awful lot of people who are damaged, who are struggling, who — without the assistance that we can provide through the therapeutic court — are just guaranteed to be going through our criminal justice system, and we’re going to be using the criminal justice system as a substitute, a very poor surrogate, for the social, mental health network,” he said.
Peninsula Behavior Health Chief Executive Officer Wendy Sisk said after the meeting that her colleagues where mental health courts are operating say they help not only keep those who are mentally challenged out of jail but help them get the help they need.
“We know that we can be effective in impacting positive outcomes for people if they are fully engaged in treatment, and sometimes mental health court programs can be that external motivator to get them there,” she said.