March 2013 Bar Bulletin
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March 2013 Bar Bulletin

SU Mental Health Court Clinic Plays Critical Role

By Katherine Hedland Hansen


As courts throughout the state and country struggle with how to deal with mentally ill criminal offenders, Seattle University School of Law runs a groundbreaking clinic to train and inspire lawyers to practice in this important area of the law.

The Mental Health Court Clinic at the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Through an innovative partnership with Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA), students get firsthand experience representing clients in Seattle Municipal Mental Health Court.

The Seattle Mental Health Court is recognized as one of the leading and highest-volume courts in the country dedicated solely to misdemeanor criminal cases involving mentally ill defendants. It is one of the few that operates as both a competency and a therapeutic court, protecting the rights of incompetent clients to not be prosecuted and offering those deemed competent assistance with housing, treatment, chemical dependency and other services. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, social workers, police and others work together to design a program of support and supervision that is tailored to the needs of each defendant and protects public safety.

Since 2010, third-year students in our Mental Health Court Clinic have had the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to advance the interests of these clients in the court's distinctive collaborative setting. These students have brought the lessons from their experience back to the law school, engaging in thought-provoking conversations with other students engaged in traditional adversarial advocacy, and have then taken these lessons with them as they enter the profession.

Karen Murray, ACA Municipal Court supervisor and a 1991 graduate of SU Law School, has applauded the clinic, saying, "We need more astute, knowledgeable people going into this field to give a voice to those who have none."

The tragic shootings of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn., have put sharper focus on both gun laws and how we as a society treat and care for the mentally ill - and on how our justice system should address the complex interaction between mental illness and criminal activity.

Mental health courts aim to intervene when people first show signs of a problem that lands them in court. Instead of simply locking people up, Seattle's Mental Health Court helps get to the root of the problem. For instance, nearly 80% of the clients suffer from drug or alcohol addiction in addition to a mental illness. Most have no transportation and many are homeless.

Through the court, attorneys, social workers, psychologists and others direct clients who are amenable to treatment, counseling, housing and other benefits. Programs linked to the court have immediate beds for substance abuse treatment, spots in transitional housing, access to mental health care and other services. The Seattle Police Department has a crisis intervention team with officers specially trained to look for signs of mental illness; two officers work directly with the court. Statistics show that those who stay with the court program for two years demonstrate an 83% reduction in criminal behavior.

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