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Originally published Monday, November 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Mental illness dilemma for jail

Getting mentally ill inmates out of jail and into treatment is a goal, but it would require a tax increase, which might hurt a transit package.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Someone booked into the King County Jail on a criminal charge or a conviction will likely stay there an average of nine to 35 days.

If the alleged offender is mentally ill, the stay will typically stretch to 158 days, more than five months.

Those numbers, recently presented by jail director Reed Holtgeerts to the Metropolitan King County Council, have helped galvanize an effort to get more mentally ill inmates out of jail and into treatment.

The council is studying whether to increase the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percentage point to provide treatment and housing for people who are mentally ill or addicted to alcohol or drugs, and to expand therapeutic courts such as Drug Court and Mental Health Court. The tax would raise about $50 million a year.

"In terms of problems that exist and just are not acceptable, this one is at or near the top of the list," said County Councilman Bob Ferguson, D-Seattle. He called it "a moral wrong" to use the jail to "warehouse" people who are mentally ill.

If the council takes action, the sales tax, which will be 8.9 cents next year in most parts of the county, will go to 9 cents on a $1 purchase. The money would primarily help people who are homeless and are frequent inmates of the jail and frequent patients in the Harborview Medical Center emergency room.

Although council members generally support the idea of providing more housing and treatment, they also are concerned that raising the sales tax could hurt chances for voter approval of a regional-highway and transit-tax package next year.

The Legislature last year gave county governments the authority to raise the sales tax without a public vote to improve treatment services and expand therapeutic courts.

A report to the County Council this year cited a state Department of Social and Health Services finding that nearly all of the 125 King County residents who visited emergency rooms at least 21 times in one year were mentally ill or chemically dependent. Their hospital visits cost taxpayers more than $3.2 million in 2002.

The 158-day average jail stay for a mentally ill offender costs the county more than $15,000 — and for the most severely disabled far more than that — Holtgeerts said. Booking a typical inmate costs $180, and each day of incarceration costs $98 more.

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Time spent in jail

Mentally ill inmates spend more time in jail because they tend to be homeless, have violated conditions of release and sometimes wait months for a competency evaluation.

On a visit to Mental Health Court, Holtgeerts said, he saw one suspect who was in jail for spitting on a bus and another for shoplifting. The mentally ill shoplifter had been locked up for 45 days because he was homeless and had no money for bail.

"Why are they in jail?" the jail director asked. "Look at what taxpayers are paying for these guys, and what have they done?"

County officials say the jail, with an estimated 274 seriously mentally ill inmates out of a jail population of about 2,550, has become the second-largest mental-health facility in the state, behind Western State Hospital.

After Holtgeerts, Sheriff Sue Rahr, judges, prosecutors and an advocate for the mentally ill told the County Council in June that putting schizophrenic and bipolar patients behind bars for minor criminal offenses was expensive — and in some cases worsened their mental condition — Ferguson introduced a motion to study the issue and consider raising the sales tax.

Ferguson's motion, which passed 9-0, asks Rahr, County Executive Ron Sims, Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng, judges and the public defenders to submit a plan by May for improving services for people with mental illness, alcoholics and drug addicts; reducing their numbers in the jail and emergency rooms; and reducing "chronic homelessness."

County Councilman Larry Gossett, D-Seattle, co-chairman of the Healthy Families and Communities Task Force, said raising the sales tax was "the centerpiece of our recommendations" on how to improve human services in King County.

Even with that tax, the task force found, the county will face a gap of $48 million in other social-service needs, such as supporting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, helping troubled children and families, and providing health care to the uninsured.

That gap exists even with the $13 million-a-year Veterans and Human Services Levy approved by voters last year. That money is to be used primarily to reduce homelessness, jail stays and hospital visits by veterans, their families and others.

Decision in May

Only after the County Council receives the plan in May will it decide whether and when to raise the sales tax. It could put the issue up to a public advisory vote.

High on council members' minds is the rapidly growing local tax burden. County voters this month approved the Transit Now sales tax for bus service that will cost the typical household about $25 a year, and Seattle voters passed a separate streets levy, which next year will cost $36 per $100,000 assessed value, or $144 for a $400,000 house.

The County Council is considering a flood-management tax levy of up to $40 a year on a $400,000 home.

Sound Transit and the Regional Transportation Improvement District hope to put a package of sales- and property-tax increases on the November 2007 ballot that could raise the average family's tax burden by more than $250 a year.

"I believe that the potential for voter fatigue is out there," Gossett said.

"You can bet your bottom dollar that most of us as members are going to be thinking about what impact this is going to have on the voters of my district, even if we don't have to go out to them."

Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, R-Redmond, supports the concept of getting more mentally ill people out of jail and into housing and recovery programs.

But she wants to make sure the proposed sales-tax increase doesn't jeopardize funding of a regional highway tax. "We're trying to prioritize what is important," she said.

"We can't expect the citizens to be continually paying more and more taxes."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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