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Court of Understanding

Spokane's felony Mental Health Court provides a framework for renewed lives

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Judge Ellen Clark takes on an almost motherly role, providing encouragement and accountability for those in the Mental Health Court. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Judge Ellen Clark takes on an almost motherly role, providing encouragement and accountability for those in the Mental Health Court.

From the bench, Superior Court Judge Ellen Clark greets defendants by first name — asking about their children, doctor's appointments and family problems. Each week, an intimate group of offenders with the county's new felony Mental Health Court gathers to share their struggles and small triumphs.

"Let's talk about the big elephant in the room, the relapse," Clark tells a woman last week. "You have been a star in this program, [but] things have kind of fallen apart. ... What happened?"

Cynthia, a 53-year-old facing identity theft charges, sits quietly before the court. She wipes her eyes with a tissue. Counselors report she had missed appointments and a recent test had shown drug use.

"I can't pinpoint it," Cynthia says, her voice cracking. She lists family drama, worsening health issues and a broken-down car. She got overwhelmed: "I really thought it justified everything I was doing."

Just 14 defendants appear in the felony-level Mental Health Court, a two-year program of intense treatment, monitoring and court-imposed structure. County officials started the program in January, and as it finishes its first year, the court sees a growing need for such individualized case management.

For decades, the justice system has criminalized mental illness, typically treating people with repeated conviction and incarceration. Mental health courts turn that upside down, setting aside criminal matters to focus on a person's needs and well-being. The court works to undermine destructive behavior through therapy, support services and increased accountability.

It's often a long journey, full of setbacks and stumbles. But Clark has yet to give up on any of the participants. She takes on an almost motherly tone.

"I'm not going to lie to you," the judge tells Cynthia, "I am really disappointed."

Mental health courts and other "problem-solving" or "therapeutic" courts across the country arose out of the success of drug court programs. Those programs recognized many crimes as symptoms of addiction and leveraged increased drug treatment to cut recidivism. By targeting the roots of criminal behavior, the courts work to offer defendants a structured path out of the system.

"We wrap around everything we possibly can," Clark explains during a recent justice symposium. "We talk about housing. We talk about jobs. We talk about education ... and family. How are you doing? How are you doing it? ... It is very much a personal interaction."

Spokane has introduced a number of problem-solving courts in recent years, ranging from Drug Court back in 1996 to a new Community Court for minor crimes last December. The county has had a misdemeanor-level mental health court since 2007 with more than 400 graduates, but officials increasingly saw a need for a court that could handle felony cases.

If defendants successfully finish the two-year program, they can have their charges dismissed. For some participants that means keeping a felony off their record. For others, it means avoiding a conviction that would result in a steep prison sentence. So the stakes can be high.

Kelli Molzhon, a court liaison with North East Washington Treatment Alternatives, serves as the primary shepherd for the 14 defendants. She meets with them at least weekly, schedules therapy sessions, sets appointments, helps apply for housing or other services, and monitors for compliance with court orders. Each week, she briefs the judge and attorneys on progress or problems.

"Everybody comes in with different treatment needs and goals and different levels of functioning," Molzhon says, explaining that they must complete five stages to graduate. "When they graduate, they have a plan of what they're going to do once they leave the program to stay stable in the community."

Unlike most criminal proceedings, the Mental Health Court brings together the deputy prosecutor, public defender, judge and Molzhon around a common goal.

"The focus isn't on the charges," she says. "The focus is on the person receiving treatment and making progress and getting better."

To be eligible for the program, public defender Rik Wallis says defendants must have a diagnosable mental health condition that played some role in their alleged offense. They cannot be facing a sex crime or a serious violent crime. Wallis says a person can still enter the program if charged with assaulting a police officer or health care worker, a common charge for those with mental illness.

About half of the participants face a drug-related charge or have known chemical dependency issues. Wallis says he and others came over from Drug Court, so they understand the complexity of stabilizing "co-occurring" substance abuse and mental health issues.

"They want to get better," he says of his clients. "[The court] is a great alternative for everybody and it's a much better way to resolve these cases."

Deputy prosecutor Mark Laiminger has spent 27 years convicting criminals and working to reduce crime in Spokane. He says he supports the new Mental Health Court, and other therapeutic courts, because they work. The programs encourage people to show up and take responsibility for their behavior as well as providing the support to turn away from their criminal habits.

"Ultimately, to me, the measure of success is do we keep people from re-offending in the future?" he says, adding. "It may cost more money than some of the other things we do, but I think the benefits will be shown over the long run."

With so few spaces in the new program, Laiminger says they can really focus on the individuals and their mental health challenges. But it also makes the program more competitive. Defendants need to prove they can show up and follow through on their obligations if they want to stay.

The county budgets about $103,000 a year for the program, nearly all of which goes to paying treatment organizations for therapy and other services. Everyone involved agreed that interest in the program exceeded the small capacity. If money was available, the court could easily triple its caseload.

"I wish we had more room," Wallis says. "That's the only complaint I have, is that we'd like more people. The cases are there."

During the weekly Mental Health Court docket, participants share their goals and challenges with the judge. The defendants, mostly women, joke and cry. They casually interrupt the judge with funny stories or embarrassing excuses. Those making progress are rewarded with priority hearing times and snacks. While none felt comfortable talking on the record about what the court has meant to them, Molzhon says the program has had a tremendous impact.

"Family or friends have said it's the best thing that's happened for this person," she says, adding. "We are very fortunate in Spokane to have this. ... Treatment does work and people do get better."

Many defendants share stories of anxiety or depression. One woman says she struggles to care about anything sometimes, even this program she appreciates so much. Another woman says she cannot focus on treatment when she's losing her apartment. Another has no working heat at her house.

Wallis says he finds hope in the increased use of therapeutic courts. Maybe in the future, the criminal justice system will evolve to provide more help for people who want it instead of just doling out jail time. Judge Clark says she has seen how the program can help remake lives.

"They are making phenomenal strides," she says. "Those folks are not the folks that are supposed to be in jail. ... [They] work really hard."

As Cynthia dries her tears, she promises to recommit herself to the program. Clark nods and provides some stern encouragement. Cynthia quietly returns to her seat where another woman gives her a hug and offers a few kind words of support.

"You can get past it," the judge tells her. "This is a two-year program. We're not kicking you out because of this last month, but you need to get back on track." ♦