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State lawmaker pushes mental health bill to address homeless prolific offenders

A homeless camp near a ball field at Seattle's Woodland Park. (Courtesy photo)

Governor Inlsee and lawmakers have made it clear that homelessness is a top priority for the short 2020 legislative session that starts Monday. Republican State Sen. Steve O’Ban agrees, but says to truly address the issue, Washington must step up to help those most in need: Those often referred to as “prolific offenders.”

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“We have a number of individuals who are out in the community [dealing with] serious mental illness — we see them all, they’re disoriented, they’re talking to themselves, they come in contact with law enforcement, they have long rap sheets, sometimes dozens and dozens of crimes they’ve been charged with, but they are not able to prosecute them for one reason or another,” O’Ban said.

He’s talking about those who fall through the cracks between the criminal justice and behavioral health and human services systems, commonly known as prolific offenders.

“We have a gap in the services we provide to those with significant mental illness or drug addictions,” explained O’Ban. “If someone is an imminent threat to themselves or others legally you can put them in an in-patient setting on an involuntary basis but once they no longer meet that definition they’re released but that doesn’t mean they’re well, it just means they’re not an imminent threat. So, how do you deal with these individuals?”

O’Ban believes he has the answer with a bill that creates a new form of guardianship.

“Someone that would be appointed by a city or county to oversee mental health care or drug treatment for an individual who fits into this category, so they can no longer refuse services,” he explained.

O’Ban’s bill would create a pilot program for King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties, specifically targeting this small group of the homeless population, and similar to a new program in California.

“It didn’t originate in my mind; it’s actually now being piloted in California of all places, so this isn’t a plan coming from some red state. This is San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego that are dealing with the same kinds of hard-to-treat individuals, and they know they need a tool like this because without it, no care is really going to be meaningfully provided,” said O’Ban, a strong advocate for behavioral health care.

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There is already strong support among many Republicans, but Democrats at last week’s AP legislative preview had not had a chance to see the bill yet, and were reluctant to weigh in, but Seattle Democratic Rep. Nicole Macri did offer some brief thoughts.

“In my experience, which is quite vast, I have found that forced treatment typically is not very durable over time,” Macri explained.

But O’Ban believes lawmakers critical of the idea will change their minds when this gets a hearing, which he expects it will.

“I’ve talked to a couple of providers and they say this is exactly what we need,” O’Ban said, “I don’t think this will be a heavy lift once policy makers hear from providers.”

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