Pierce County District Court may hire a mental health professional to work in its probation division starting as early as 2015.
Under District Court Presiding Judge Maggie Ross’s proposal, a probation officer or a mental health professional would help mentally ill people in the criminal justice system manage their treatment and housing in order to avoid re-offending.
Supporters say the idea is a cheaper alternative to creating a fully-staffed mental health court, as other district courts in Western Washington have done.
Pierce County Councilmember Connie Ladenburg said she likes the idea and hopes the county can eventually support programs that prevent incarceration by offering people with mental illness the help they need.
“I’d rather they not get into the criminal justice system,” Ladenburg said.
King County’s mental health court costs about $2 million a year to operate.
“You’re talking about a lot of money,” Pierce County District Court Administrator Chuck Ramey said of operating mental health court. “Pierce County does not have a lot of money.”
The Pierce County District Court has an annual budget of $12 million. Hiring a mental health professional and clerical worker could cost between $100,000 and $150,000.
About 20 percent of those on probation in Pierce County District Court have mental health issues, Ramey said.
Other counties, including King and Kitsap, have taken advantage of a 2005 state law that allows counties and cities to collect a 0.1 of 1 percent sales tax — 1 cent on a $10 purchase — for mental health and chemical dependency treatment services.
Pierce County lacks that option. The seven-person council is resistant to establishing a sales tax, Ladenburg said.
“There’s no way,” she said. “They’re just not going to do it.”
In 2013, the Pierce County Council allocated $30,000 to study the creation of a mental health court. A panel of 70 mental health, social services and law enforcement professionals met earlier this year to discuss proposals and endorsed the idea of creating a position in the probation division of the district court.
It was just one idea of many the group supported. They also suggested that the county create crisis intervention teams in law enforcement, establish more mental health beds at the jail and find more funding for mental health treatment.
Ramey said a probation professional working in mental health could be a step that could help immediately, while working toward a mental health court in the future.
The Pierce County Council will consider funding the position in budget negotiations this fall.