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Originally published Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:44 PM

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Guest columnist

Changes to mental-health system will enhance public safety

Changes are necessary to help the mentally ill and to improve public safety, writes King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Further cuts to the state's fragile patchwork of treatment and commitment of the mentally ill would reverse progress made over the past 13 years.

Special to The Times

THE safety of our community depends on the strength of our mental-health system. While only a very small percentage of people suffering from mental illness ever pose a danger to the public, the incidents that do occur are often shocking episodes of random violence:

• In 1997, retired Seattle firefighter Stanley Stevenson was stabbed to death while leaving a Mariners game by Dan Van Ho. Van Ho had been released from jail one day earlier after being found mentally incompetent to stand trial on a minor criminal offense.

• Three years ago on New Year's Eve, 31-year-old Shannon Harps was stabbed to death by James Williams, a stranger who had a long history of violence and severe mental illness and who had bounced back and forth between our state hospitals and our state prisons.

• Last month, Joseph LaMagno was brutally murdered by a stranger with a hatchet in broad daylight in front of horrified onlookers. Michael LaRosa, a Seattle mental-health court client with a long history of serious mental illness, has been charged with his murder.

Each time an attack grabs headlines, officials call for a review to determine what went wrong. Task forces are formed and recommendations for change are made. But reform is slow in coming.

The task force convened after Stanley Stevenson's slaying identified critical gaps between the criminal-justice system and the mental-health system. The Legislature responded with some needed reforms but did not act on others.

Ten years later, I convened a similar task force after Shannon Harps' death. The Harps task force proposed dozens of reforms to our mental-health and criminal-justice systems; many echoed the changes of the Stevenson task force. Few reforms were enacted. Now, we face a new round of questions in light of Joseph LaMagno's death.

We don't need another task force to review this tragic outcome; we already know what should be done to improve the link between our mental health system and public safety.

First, we should reform the standard for involuntary commitment. Many mental-health experts believe our commitment standard, untouched since the 1970s, is set too high, leaving the mentally ill untreated and on the streets, where they are likely to decompensate and become victims or perpetrators of random violence. We need a more-reasonable standard for temporary commitment to protect both the public and the individual from their deteriorating mental health.

Second, we must amend our criminal statutes to allow lifetime supervision of mentally ill offenders who have already committed acts of violence. Such supervision three years ago would have allowed officials to immediately detain James Williams at the first sign of decompensation, well before he murdered Shannon Harps.

Third, we must increase capacity within our state's psychiatric hospitals and other inpatient-treatment facilities. Washington state ranks 50th in the nation in the number of inpatient hospital treatment beds per 100,000 residents. Lack of capacity drives placement decisions and puts dedicated mental-health professionals in an impossible position. Individuals who should be held for their safety and ours are released because there aren't enough treatment beds.

We know what changes are necessary to help the mentally ill and to improve public safety, but strong budget winds are blowing in the face of reform, and further cuts to this fragile patchwork would reverse incremental progress made over the past 13 years. While this biennium may not allow us to increase capacity to help the mentally ill, the Legislature should recognize the direct link between our mental-health network and public safety and avoid doing further harm to this critical infrastructure.

Dan Satterberg is King County prosecutor.

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