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County mulls youth mental health court

Kitsap County is investigating the possibility of establishing a juvenile mental health court with the purpose of dealing with mental problems and keeping people out of the criminal system.

The pilot program is designed as a preventive measure.

“We see a lot of kids committing criminal acts because of mental disorders,” said Superior Court Judge Anna M. Laurie, who would be the program’s judicial point person. “But these aren’t criminal kids. If we focus our resources we can prevent them from becoming hardened criminals.”

Laurie said adult Mental Health Courts have demonstrated success, but an adult may have already demonstrated criminal behavior. She said getting younger people into the program will be more effective, adding that the proposed Kitsap court would be the first of its kind nationwide.

The county has received a federal training grant which pays for eight people (Laurie and Drug Court Manager Cherie Lusk among them) to attend three training sessions this year. Representatives from the school districts along with prosecuting and defense attorneys are included in the training.

The court would convene in early 2006 at the earliest, and would need to find a reliable funding source.

The idea is similar to Drug Court. There, people qualify for the program if they are convicted of minor nonviolent offenses and receive regular counseling from a judge in a courtroom setting. This program has been a successful way for borderline cases to avoid becoming drug casualties.

Mental Health Court would screen juvenile offenders for attention deficit syndrome or mood disorders that may have prompted them to commit a crime. Someone who committed an extremely violent act or was judged to be a danger to society would not qualify.

“If we have someone who trashes a car because they are angry and haven’t taken their medication we can deal with that in a court situation and avoid sending them to jail,” Laurie said. “It’s a much more constructive solution.”

Laurie said experts will do the screening, and real criminals won’t be able to snow the system and receive the treatment. “This is not an excuse for bad behavior,” she said.

“Most people don’t want mentally ill people in the system,” she said. “We just want to get them through this hormonally-driven phase. They don’t need to be in jail.”

Laurie admits the county doesn’t have the resources to deal with mental health issues, but said this program isn’t designed as an overall fix. Rather, it only deals with people who have committed a crime.

“This gives is an opportunity to cut off this behavior at its root,” Laurie said.

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