Friday, July 25, 2014

Prosecutor Candidates Talk Mental Illness

Does the Kitsap prosecutor have a role to play in the county’s mental and behavioral health system? Yes, and it’s significant. We know, from talking to Kitsap police officers, that encounters between police and people suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse are depressingly frequent. When dealing with a low-level arrest, the prosecutor has tremendous discretion in deciding how to handle the case so as to achieve the best possible result for those concerned; the police, the courts, the jails, the person arrested and the public. Essentially, this involves choosing whether to pursue punishment or treatment.

Because such decisions are so important, Islanders for Collaborative Policing and NAMI-Kitsap co-hosted a forum on July 17 to hear from candidates for the office of prosecutor. The candidates were asked to talk about issues concerning criminal justice, mental illness, and drug dependency. Over fifty people attended, including judges, city councilmembers, and police chiefs. Interestingly, of the questions and comments voiced by attendees, nearly all were on the topic of mental illness. There is clearly a great deal of community interest in how the prosecutor’s office can impact and improve the system for dealing with these problems.

Specifics. Each of the candidates—incumbent Russ Hauge and challengers Bruce Danielson, Tina Robinson, and Bob Scales—agreed that there are serious flaws in the way mentally ill people are handled in the criminal justice system. Three of the candidates—Hauge, Robinson and Scales—suggested that there has been too much of an emphasis on criminalization, and that more and better use of treatment/diversion options are needed. (According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, the number of seriously mentally ill people in prison and jail, nationwide, exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals ten-fold.)

Russ Hauge stated, unequivocally, that there are too many mentally ill people in jail. He mentioned his efforts to divert low-level drug addicts from jail to treatment, explaining “we can’t arrest our way [out of dealing with behavioral problems].” He discussed his enthusiastic support of a new crisis triage center (funded by the MIDD tax) as an alternative to incarceration. He stressed his strong relationship with law enforcement, his support of the new crisis intervention officer program, and the need for more sharing of information among police agencies and personnel to improve their response to people in crisis. He also supports state legislation that would shield some personal information in police databases from public record requests.

Bruce Danielson articulated his belief that increased police training and dedicated staff at the prosecutors’ office are needed for better mental health response. He suggested that adequate systems and services are already in place to properly handle mentally ill defendants, but are not being effectively utilized. He expressed doubts about the utility of either specialized courts or information sharing by law enforcement to better deal with criminal behavior associated with mental health problems.

Tina Robinson said she has “more questions than answers” regarding mental health issues, but assures that she’s committed to working with agencies serving the mentally ill, as well as their parents and caregivers. She expressed concern about neighborhoods being “terrorized” by mentally ill individuals. She also expressed an interest in seeing more treatment options made available, such as civil commitment laws that would lower the threshold for mandatory treatment. She supports the creation of a court advocate to assist defendants with mental health issues, similar to existing domestic violence advocates.

Bob Scales talked about his support for a pre-booking diversion program in Seattle (called LEAD), and suggested it could be a model for working with people with behavioral health problems in Kitsap County. (LEAD is a privately funded program that allows police to redirect low-level drug offenders to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution.) He described the prosecutor’s role as an advocate who “breaks down barriers” and pledged to promote private/public partnerships around mental health issues. He also mentioned his interest in crime prevention, citing his support for a state law banning gun possession by people who have previously been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.

ICP is not endorsing any of the candidates at this point, but we are watching the race with considerable interest. We will follow up with more specific questions for remaining candidates after the primary election.