Plan to change sentencing for mentally ill has merit

But the reforms will work only if they are backed by the dollars necessary to properly treat mentally ill offenders. We aren't convinced that will happen.


When the mentally ill commit crimes, should they be punished for their behavior or treated for their illness?

That's a question society has been wrestling with for centuries. And, unfortunately, many of the answers have not necessarily served society or the mentally ill.

We for too long locked away the mentally ill who committed crimes in prisons without much, if any, treatment. Then society took a different view and those who were found not guilty by reason of insanity were supposed to get treatment, but often didn't get help they needed.

Clearly this is a complex issue. It's also very emotional as the victims are outraged when someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Gov. Chris Gregoire is seeking to amend the law to add a new sentencing option for the mentally ill. It would allow the state to punish offenders for their crimes and treat their mental illness in prison instead of in a state psychiatric hospital. This, the governor said, would allow the option of finding offenders guilty and mentally ill.

A Republican state senator, Mike Carrell of Lakewood, is also tackling this issue. The Seattle Times reported last week that he has introduced legislation to allow for verdicts of guilty and mentally ill if a judge or jury finds they committed the crime, they were not found legally insane but were mentally ill when the defendants committed the crime and their actions were affected by the mental illness. Thirteen states have adopted guilty and mentally ill options verdicts.

"I'm confident we ... are going to have some kind of guilty and mentally ill bill that will end up on the governor's desk," Carrell said.

The idea, in theory, has merit. Those who are a danger to society because they are mentally ill need help. It benefits the individuals, their family and all of society.

However, we are skeptical the state will make sufficient mental health treatment available to these offenders.

The state now faces a huge revenue shortfall of $2.6 billion. Deep cuts are likely to come state agencies, including corrections.

One of our biggest concerns is the mentally ill will be sentenced to the Washington State Penitentiary and other prisons around the state, but those facilities will not have staff or programs in place to properly care for those inmates. This will put the prisons' staffs and other inmates at risk.

And if these offenders are not treated and are released from custody -- and most will be released -- they will still be a danger to society.

Yes, we agree the current system is flawed.

But the governor and Legislature shouldn't make dramatic reforms unless those reforms are backed by the dollars necessary to properly treat mentally ill offenders.


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