Monday, March 9, 2009

Floor action continues at this hour -- Mental Health package sent to Senate

The tragic murder of Shannon Harps on New Year’s Eve, 2007, was remembered by state lawmakers today as the House passed several reforms that aim to protect mental-health services for children and reduce threats to public safety from mentally ill offenders.

“The death of Shannon Harps taught us lessons that will save lives,” said Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, who chairs the Human Services Committee. “Passing these reforms will honor her memory and make all people in Washington safer in years to come.”

After Harps was killed by a person who was seriously mentally ill and under community supervision at the time of the murder, a special working group led by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg launched a comprehensive review of issues related to the community supervision of higher-risk mentally ill offenders. Several of the reforms passed by the House today reflect findings from the study.

House Bill 1300, by Rep. Chris Hurst (D-Enumclaw), takes aim at a key problem identified by the Satterberg working group: a systematic failure to share mental-health history information that could be crucial to guiding interactions and decisions related to mentally-ill offenders.

“Failing to share information about risks posed by mentally-ill offenders has led to catastrophe in the past and will do so again unless we act decisively now to solve the problem,” Hurst said.

Hurst’s bill addresses the information gap by giving public health officials, prosecuting and defense attorneys, jail personnel and other key individuals expanded access to mental-health treatment histories under the Involuntary Treatment Act. It also gathers confidentially statutes into a single place to end confusion about who is entitled to what information about mentally ill offenders.

House Bill 1346, by Rep. Tami Green (D-Lakewood) creates additional grounds to petition for the extended involuntary treatment of a person who is already the subject of a court order for less restrictive treatment. Green’s bill would reduce the risks of premature release from treatment while also avoiding more restrictive and expensive hospitalization. “We worked hard to strike the right balance between protecting public safety and respecting the rights of persons with mental illness,” Green said. “The strong support we’ve received shows we got the balance right.”

House Bill 1201, by Rep. Al O’Brien (D-Mountlake Terrace), would have participants of Washington’s Dangerous Mentally Ill Offender program complete an advance mental health directive prior to release from prison. An advance directive allows a person with mental illness to plan ahead for treatment they would receive, should their condition deteriorate. The bill also renames the program to the Offender Re-Entry Community Safety Program.