PORT ANGELES — Mark Nichols has seen mental health courts succeed in other counties and hopes to launch one in Clallam County.
Nichols, Clallam County’s prosecuting attorney and ex officio coroner, is leading an effort to create a therapeutic court for certain defendants diagnosed with brain disorders in Port Angeles-based District Court I.
“If you look at how the system deals with folks who are mentally ill who come to the attention of law enforcement and who are charged with crimes, our approach is clumsy at best and I would argue largely ineffective,” Nichols said in a Tuesday interview.
“I believe we can do better.”
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.
Participants would be required to follow their mental health provider’s instructions and take medications as prescribed. They would check in regularly with a mental health court coordinator and appear before presiding District Court I Judge Dave Neupert.
Neupert would hold a special calendar for mental health court, probably on Mondays in the old courtroom in the historic courthouse in Port Angeles.
“I’m very positive about it and do see a need for it,” Neupert said in a Tuesday interview.
“Just about every day when I’m on the bench, we have folks coming through that present with mental health issues, and some of those folks are repeat defendants in our court and would benefit from having the kind of intervention approach that the mental health court can provide.”
Neupert, who became a judge in 2019, is a member of the Therapeutic Courts Committee of the state District and Municipal Court Judges Association.
“Meeting regularly with the other judges that sponsor mental health courts has given me a real insight into how they work and why they work,” Neupert said.
“We don’t have to look any further than our neighboring county, Jefferson County, and Kitsap County to see working models there.”
Nichols has researched other mental health courts — 15 of the 39 counties have them — and plans to present his findings to the three Clallam County commissioners Monday.
Nichols will request $150,000 in unspent Hargrove Fund reserves to hire a mental health court coordinator and to cover other expenses needed for the launch.
He estimated the ongoing cost of mental heath court would be between $150,000 and $250,000 per year.
The Hargrove Fund, named for retired state state Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, is a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax approved by the Legislature in 2005 that counties can use to provide mental health services.
Nichols and Neupert said they hope to begin the accepting clients into mental health court by the end of this year.
“These are not bad people, and I want to underscore that,” Nichols said.
“These are folks whose behavior is being driven by an underlying mental health condition that is at times undiagnosed, in some cases is diagnosed and unmedicated, or untreated in others.”
Those charged with violent offenses or sex crimes would not be eligible for the program.
A person charged with simple assault or third-degree felony assault could enroll in mental health court with the alleged victim’s permission.
“Regardless of the circumstance,” Nichols said, “the real challenge ahead is in addressing the underlying mental health condition, and I believe if we put more system resources into doing that, it will pay dividends.
“What we’ll wind up seeing is a reduction in recidivism and an attendant increase in public safety at the same time,” Nichols said.
Harry Gasnick, Clallam Public Defender director, said he supports the mental health court model.
“I think that there is a massive general agreement that a mental health court is a good thing,” he said Monday. “The question of how it gets implemented, and exactly what it is, is potentially a whole other issue.”
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict said he, too, supports the idea of mental health court.
“We’ve needed it for some time,” Benedict said Tuesday.
Benedict cautioned that it may be difficult to convince some defendants that they suffer from a brain disorder.
“They’ll have to stipulate that they are mentally ill, and a lot of people aren’t willing to do to do that,” Benedict said.
“But once you do get them into it, I think that you’ll have a good result.”
Nichols said the traditional criminal justice system is not helping the mental ill.
“The question I would put to would-be opponents is why would we not try mental health court when it’s been demonstrated to be successful in other jurisdictions,” Nichols said.
“Ultimately, you never know if it’s going to work until you try it.”
Gasnick said he could identify on a typical day about 15 percent of the Clallam County jail population as persons who have had their competency questioned or who have been the subject of an involuntary civil commitment.
Benedict estimated that 10 to 20 percent of jail’s population could benefit from a mental health court.
The Port Angeles and Sequim city councils have each approved letters of support for the mental health court as Nichols proposed.
Nichols shared information and answered questions form the Forks City Council on Monday.
“It remains to be seen whether they’re going to formally support this, but I can tell you that a number of the reactions received from City Council members indicated to me that they understand very well the complexity of the challenge confronting not just central county, but west county in relation to mental health,” Nichols said.
Nichols said he personally audited mental health courts in Jefferson, Kitsap and Thurston counties.
“Jefferson is about half our size and Kitsap significantly larger, and so that demonstrates that you don’t need to have a huge county by population in order to be able to have a successful mental health court,” Nichols said.
“Both of those jurisdictions speak very highly of the benefits from the programs.”
Nichols said the alternative to mental health court is a costly cycle of recidivism.
“We’re doing the same thing over and over again, and we’re expecting a different result,” Nichols said.
“I think we need to try something different if we want to see a different result, and my proposal is that mental health court is that something different.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].