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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Alternative to prison to be allowed in Washington for some who have mental illness

Washington State Department of Corrections
Washington will soon offer an alternative to certain people with a serious mental illness who are convicted of a felony.

The state of Washington will soon offer an alternative to prison for people with a serious mental illness who commit a crime. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law Monday.

Under the new Mental Health Sentencing Alternative, judges will have the option to sentence a person to community supervision and treatment in lieu of prison.

The program will be open to individuals who are convicted of a felony crime that is not a serious violent offense or a sex offense. In order to qualify, the person would have to be willing to participate in the sentencing alternative, and the court would have to determine the individual would benefit from community-based supervision and treatment. The opinion of the person’s victim would also be considered.

The Department of Corrections would also have to conduct a pre-sentence investigation. That investigation would include, among other things, the name and address of the person’s treatment providers, a proposed monitoring plan and any conditions of release back into the community.

If the person were to violate the conditions of the sentencing alternative, they could be sent to prison to serve their sentence.

The bill was sponsored by Democratic state Sen. T’wina Nobles who was first elected last year.

“Instead of criminalizing community members with serious mental illnesses, we need to treat them,” Nobles said in a statement after the bill passed the state Senate in March. “This bill promotes and improves public safety and supports the long-term health of individuals convicted of crimes where mental health, cognitive issues, or brain injuries are a factor.”

The Washington Senate passed the bill unanimously. It later cleared the House with just nine Republicans opposing it.

Creating a Mental Health Sentencing Alternative was a top priority of the state’s sentencing task force in 2019. Washington already offers sentencing alternatives for certain drug offenders and certain sex offenders.

The bill will take effect July 25.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."