Benton County Mental Health Court gets underway to help rehabili - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Benton County Mental Health Court gets underway to help rehabilitate the mentally ill

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KENNEWICK, WA. -- There's been a lot of debate recently about what should be done to care for our local mentally ill. On Wednesday, we got our first look at the brand new mental health court that just got underway in Benton County. 

It was definitely a different experience. We've never seen so much talking, interaction and even smiling and laughing in court before. 

It's not all fun and games though. One person in court was taken back to jail for one day for not following orders while another offender was celebrated for getting a brand new job. 

Wednesday was just the second day of mental health court that officially got underway last week. To get into program, applicants have to have a serious diagnosed mental illness, something like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and they cannot have committed a violent or sexual crime. They also cannot have any gang ties. 

The way the court operates is much different from the normal court system. They work with a much more therapeutic approach. 

"Instead of just taking a typical approach as in a typical criminal docket, we want to take a more therapeutic approach," Tara Symons, Mental Health Court Program Manager said. "We want to connect them with services, get them into treatment, get them the resources they need so they're not in the criminal justice system."

"I enjoy getting to know some of the defendants," Judge Katy Butler said. "I don't usually hear that defendants are involved in yard sales, or getting their first jobs at Sonic. And to be able to think that we can think that we can get down here 2-years from now and see a real change in someone and hopefully keep them out of the criminal justice system, that's a satisfaction that's really nice to have as a judge."

It takes one to two years to graduate from mental health court. Offenders must complete four different phases of rehabilitation and pass regular drug tests. 

So far, 10 people are enrolled. Administrators say hope to accommodate 75 total participants this year.