School of Law establishes pioneering Mental Health Court Clinic

(March 29, 2010) As courts throughout the state and the country struggle with how to deal with mentally ill criminal offenders, Seattle University School of Law has started a groundbreaking clinic to train and inspire lawyers to practice in this important area of the law.

The Mental Health Court Clinic at the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Through an innovative partnership with Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA), students get first-hand experience representing clients in Seattle Municipal Mental Health Court.

"This is difficult work, full of challenges, but also great rewards," said Russell Kurth, an experienced mental health court practitioner at ACA and Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the law school. "Through education at Seattle University School of Law, we're going to train the next generation of lawyers who care about these issues."

Now in its 11th year, the Seattle Mental Health Court is recognized as one of the leading and highest volume courts in the country dedicated solely to criminal cases involving mentally ill defendants. It is one of the few that operates as a both a competency and a therapeutic court, protecting the rights of incompetent clients to not be prosecuted and offering those deemed competent assistance with housing, treatment, chemical dependency and other services. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, social workers, police and others work together to design a program of support and supervision that is tailored to the needs of each defendant and protects public safety.

"It makes so much sense to have a collaborative court," said Jessica Mullan, a graduate of the law school, now working as a fellow with the Mental Health Court Clinic. After representing juvenile clients in the Law School's Youth Advocacy Clinic, Jessica spent her final semester as an extern with ACA working with Kurth in the Mental Health Court. She found the court's approach so rewarding that she volunteered with ACA after taking the bar and before she was offered the fellowship.  She is now able to serve as a role model to the Clinic students as a member of the court team but also someone who appreciates how new this alternative form of practice must seem to them.

In harmony with the collaborative spirit of the court, the law school requires students interested in the Clinic to first complete the course in Law, Policy, and Mental Health taught by adjunct professor Mike Finkle, who has been the lead Mental Health Court prosecutor for the Office of the Seattle City Attorney and was recently appointed a King County District Court Judge.

Kurth was drawn to this assignment because of his personal experience with his mentally ill sister.  He said that the court is an effective, if still limited, response to a significant social problem.  As the number of inpatient hospital beds for the mentally ill in the country has decreased from 550,000 in the 1970s, to fewer than 50,000 today, the nation's correctional system has been overwhelmed by the resulting untreated mental illness. The Department of Justice reported that in 2007, 64 percent of people incarcerated in local jails had a mental illness.  The numbers for state (56 percent) and federal (45 percent) facilities are only slightly less alarming.

Instead of simply locking people up, the mental health court helps get to the root of the problem. Kurth says those who stay with the court program for two years have an 83 percent reduction in criminal behavior.

"It's humbling to know that we as attorneys can do so much if we use what we have learned in the right way, and with passion and not for personal gain," said Karen Murray, municipal court supervisor for the Associated Counsel for the Accused and a graduate of the law school. "We are totally committed to this clinic and our attorneys. We need more astute, knowledgeable people going into this field to give a voice to those who have none."

Students are already benefiting from the experience.

"In the Mental Health Court Clinic, I am not just learning about something - I am actually doing it," said 3L Megan Giske. "I am gaining practical experience in everything from criminal procedure to client counseling, but most importantly, I am learning how to advocate for a very unique population. The clinic has been very rewarding."

The clinic is funded in part by grants from the Val A. Browning Charitable Foundation and the Nesholm Family Foundation.

Chris Browning and his wife Liz know well the pain that mental illness can cause a family, and the difference a mental health court can make. After years of struggling to deal with their son's schizophrenia, they met Kurth when he was appointed to represent their son after he was accused of assault. Kurth's efforts diverted their son from jail and helped him get the treatment he needed.

"It was a life-saving turning point for our son," Chris Browning said. "We were fortunate to have the Browning Foundation's support in spearheading this effort to keep our most vulnerable out of the criminal justice system. We were doubly fortunate to collaborate with Seattle University School of Law's Clinic faculty and administration to found this clinic."

The Nesholm Family Foundation is also pleased to support the initiative.

"Supporting the Mental Health Court Clinic at Seattle University Law School gives us an excellent opportunity to very directly assist persons with mental illness and at the same time leverage long-term positive change in our society," said Joe Gaffney, a partner in the Dorsey & Whitney law firm who is also a trustee of the Nesholm Family Foundation. 

Annette Clark, interim dean at the law school who also holds a medical degree, said it's fitting that such a clinic found a home at Seattle University School of Law, which strives to educate outstanding lawyers to be leaders for a just and humane world.

"The law can be a healing profession," Clark said. "The work of the mental health court attorneys is evidence of that."

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