City plans to expand mental health court

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Tacoma Municipal Court wants to expand its mental health court, a program that aims to steer mentally ill defendants into treatment and prevent them from committing future offenses. Judge Elizabeth Verhey, who presides over this court, provided an update to Tacoma City Council on Aug. 7.

The program was created several years ago. Cases are heard every Wednesday. For those who enter, the first step is to determine if they are competent to stand trial. Out of 141 cases this year, 47 people were determined fit to stand trial and 69 were deemed incompetent. Some defendants are involved in more than one case. The court is for those in the former category. While legally fit to face the legal system, these defendants still struggle with mental illness. Verhey said defendants often have other issues, such as homelessness, substance abuse and medical problems. “We have an extreme homelessness problem on top of a mental health problem,” she remarked.

Verhey wants to have a program manager who would meet with each defendant and come up with personalized plan for addressing his or her problems. An assistant program manager would get them into various programs. For example, Pioneer Human Services does substance abuse assessments, while Catholic Community Services is involved with housing resources. “It is all different things,” Verhey observed. “Each person is different.”

Currently Verhey and two attorneys make decisions regarding treatment. The city plans to contract with an outside provider to fill the two positions. Verhey plans to have them in place in October. She will retire at the end of the year and is working on a transition. Judge Drew Ann Henke will replace Verhey in presiding over the mental health court.

Councilmember Anders Ibsen said the program helps the city meet goals regarding public safety and assisting those with behavioral or substance abuse problems. “It is very heartening to see this progress.”

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