SPOKANE, Wash. -- The courtroom looks the same as every other hearing but what happens in front of Spokane Superior Court Judge Harold Clarke every Tuesday morning is very different.
There is clapping, a basket of candy sits on the front table, Judge Clarke knows each person's first name and a team of people who know each person's daily struggle sit in the jury box. It is called Mental Health Court.
“It increases public safety, you can feel safer in your home. I hope it also normalizes the reality that many people in our community are fighting addiction and coping with mental illness," said Sandra Altshuler, Felony Therapeutic Courts Coordinator.
Whether you realize it or not, the issue of mental illness touches all of us. It impacts public safety. The root cause of many crimes committed in our community can be directly linked to a person's mental illness. If that is the case, that person can be referred to mental health court.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I am lucky that I was able to experience this program," Amy Bachman said.
Bachman is now a graduate of the program. But about four years ago, her life looked nothing like it does today. She was suicidal and set a fire. Police arrested her for first degree arson.
"I was in a very bad place, my mental health was very bad and I wasn't getting the help that I needed," Bachman explained.
At the lowest point in her life, Bachman's case was referred to mental health court. That's just the start, each person then goes through a test period to see if the program is doable for them and ultimately, they have to agree to participate. Once they sign the paperwork a lot is expected of them. There are mental health requirements where they must meet with a provider as often as they deem necessary. They have to adhere to medication, be clean and sober and a show up to court twice a week, in some cases, to check in with the judge.
"Having that judge checking in with you is an amazing monitoring tool that cannot be denied," Altshuler explained.
The Mental Health Court Program began five years ago. It was designed to start small so they could do it right. People with violent offenses like rape or murder charges are not eligible. Right now, 22 people are going through the process, by the end of December they plan to add 10 more. It is a two-year program and if they graduate their charges are dismissed.
"Pretty much every graduate will say to you, ‘That's why I joined the program, but that's not the real benefit I got. The real benefit is that I have a different life,’" Altshuler said.
The statistics prove those who graduate do leave with a different life. They tracked eight people who graduated. Before the program, those eight people spent a total of 427 days in jail. After the program, only two people spent a total of 35 days in jail. The number of days in jail dropped by 91.8 percent and the recidivism rate dropped from 100 percent to 12.5 percent.
"At graduation, one of our people held up a ring of keys and he said, ‘I have a key chain,’ and we were all like ok? And he said, ‘You don't understand I have every one of these keys legally. I have a key to a car that I now own, I have a key to a home that I go into, I have a key to work that somebody trusts me to go into. Before that, these would've all been shaved and I would have been using it for illegal activities,’" Altshuler recalled.
Bachman’s life changed for the better as well. Without the program, she said she would not still be here.
"They gave me my life back," she said.
She is now active in the community. She is there for her kids, spouse and is volunteering her time to help others currently in the program.
"Every aspect of my life is, I never imagined it being this good, and I never imagined. I'm going to be a peer counselor. That is my goal," Bachman explained.
There is still a big stigma with mental health. Because of that, the coordinator of the program said people in the community are not willing to give these folks a shot a soon as they hear the words mental illness. They said they need employers willing to hire them and landlords willing to rent to them. She said these people really do want to work and contribute to society after they graduate.
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