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Diverting people suffering from mental illness away from the criminal court system has become a national imperative as jails and courts across the country overflow with people suffering from mental illness.

With a growing focus on finding alternatives to arrest, prosecute or incarcerate these people, law enforcement, behavioral health professionals and courts are partnering at the national and local levels to diversion programs that engage people suffering from mental illness in services like intensive case management, housing assistance and treatment as an alternative to arrest, prosecution and incarceration, said Tim Hunter, the acting workforce development director for the Department of Social and Health Services’ Office of Forensic Mental Health Services.

This month, DSHS and Policy Research Associates, which works on behavioral health and social initiatives throughout the country, will host a Sequential Intercept Model mapping event help establish and improve diversion efforts in three Southwest Washington counties.

“The Sequential Intercept Model identifies specific points at which we can deflect people from deeper involvement in the criminal court system,” Hunter said. “For instance, at the time of encounter with police, must the person be arrested or taken to a hospital emergency room? Or could they instead be connected to services like crisis triage, case management, treatment and housing assistance?”

The event brings together 50 representatives from law enforcement, jails, attorneys, courts, crisis responders, behavioral health treatment providers and reentry service providers in Clark, Klickitat and Skamania counties.

In Washington, DSHS is required to create diversion programs as a part of the Trueblood Contempt Settlement Agreement.

The Sequential Intercept Model identifies five intercept points in which diversion strategies can be applied: Preventative endeavors in the community before a person has contact with law enforcement; during contact with law enforcement; during consideration of prosecution; during sentencing; when a person is incarcerated; and when a released incarcerated person is under community supervision.

“This simple model also provides a common language for people from different disciplines (police, prosecutors, judges, behavioral health professionals and others) to be able to talk with one another about diversion options,” Hunter said.

The first session of the mapping event was Feb. 10, and focused on identifying existing and needed diversion programs in the three Southwest counties. Those counties are also three of the 10 that are part of the first phase of the Trueblood agreement.

The final day of the workshop is Feb. 24, and will build on the work from the first session by helping the counties create action plans to develop and implement diversion services at each of the points of intercept.

“We continue to make efforts toward diversion here in Washington,” Hunter said. “The Sequential Intercept Model has been helpful nationally, and we’re drawing heavily on it as we work to transform our state’s approach to forensic mental health services.”

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