Legislators vow to change mental health system as region impacted by prolific offenders, mental illness

TACOMA, Wash. - The sister of the prolific offender who is accused of throwing coffee on a toddler in downtown Seattle says if Francisco Calderon is released he will commit another crime.

The best thing, she says, is involuntary commitment.

“Let us just keep our citizens safe; I love my brother dearly but I know he should not be out on the streets,” Ana Calderon Barnett said.

The threshold for involuntary commitment in Washington state is high. After all, you are stripping away civil liberties and holding someone against their will.

“We only want to do that if they are an imminent harm to themselves or others,” Senator Steve O’Ban said.

O’Ban says involuntary commitments are important for those who are violent and chronically mentally ill.

Calderon’s case is in Municipal Court, which handles misdemeanor cases. A judge in that court could ask for an evaluation, and if Calderon is deemed incompetent he could be sent to Western State Hospital for a period of time deemed necessary.

“Our state is in a place, unfortunately, where we are in a crisis response model instead of an early intervention model,” Senator Manka Dhingra said.

Dhingra says when it comes to involuntary commitments, she wants to extend the initial 72 hour hold to 5 days. The measure includes a number of other changes.

“It takes 3 to 4 to 5 days for someone to cleanse their system of any drugs that they may be on,” Dhingra said.

Dhingra's measure passed the Senate last year but died in the House.

Both Dhingra and O’Ban will be back to fight to change the mental health system in the upcoming legislative session.

They both agree that involuntary commitments are not enough because of what happens after the person is released. The goal of involuntary commitment is restoration, so once someone is stabilized they are qualified to be released.

O’Ban says what Washington’s system lacks right now is accountability after someone is released.

“Who has the authority? Who will see to that person’s care,?" O’Ban said.

O’Ban says San Francisco has a guardianship system where the city itself or a family member is appointed to keep track of someone who leaves a mental hospital. If the person doesn’t follow through, they could be sent back to inpatient treatment.

“California is doing this and we need to be doing this,” O’Ban said.

O’Ban says he also wants to expand a pilot program he started in Pierce County statewide.

It’s called Assisted Outpatient Treatment and it allows Superior Court Judges in Pierce County to hold people suffering from mental illness more accountable by keeping tabs on them after they are released.

“If a mental health professional says 'Hey they aren’t taking their meds, aren’t showing up for appointments,' the judge can order them into inpatient care,” O’Ban said.

Dhingra says overall Washington needs more treatment programs.

She will also look at ways to deal with the group of people who are found incompetent to face criminal charges.

She says state hospitals are required to take these people, but with a lack of resources many times they slip through the cracks.