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Washington lawmakers discuss an alternative to jail for mental health crises

caption: The Washington state capitol building in Olympia.
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The Washington state capitol building in Olympia.
Austin Jenkins/Northwest News Network

First responders in Washington state have few options when they encounter a person having a mental health episode. In many cases, the default option is jail.

Now, a legislative committee is pondering a new option designed to get people the short-term help they need without routing them through the criminal justice system.

Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) wants to institute a new system for Washington, based on an idea she learned about in Arizona — a 23-hour crisis relief center. She has proposed SB 5120 to set up a similar program locally. The center would be a place where people with mental health issues can stay for up to a day.

Dhingra says that for people with an acute mental health situation, it’s a better alternative than jail. That point was reinforced by Sarah Chesemore, a Bellevue mother whose daughter has struggled with mental illness. She testified Friday at a Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee hearing.

“You go to the emergency department and you sit in very uncomfortable, hard chairs in the waiting room, watched by security and others there for medical reasons," Chesemore said. "The treatment rooms are not calming. The ED environment is chaotic and stressful. This is not conducive to de-escalation.”

Most who testified at Friday’s hearing applauded the goal of the proposal, but said there are details to work out. One is whether legislators are willing to spend money to establish crisis centers around the state.

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