A man with a troubled history of violence bounces through the Arkansas mental health and criminal justice systems, finally ending up sick and dangerous on the streets of Washington state, where he commits violent attacks against strangers.
It happened two years ago in Seattle, when James A. Williams stabbed and killed Shannon Harps outside her Capitol Hill apartment. And it may have happened again in Parkland, near Tacoma, on Sunday morning. Police throughout the region currently are looking for Maurice Clemmons, who they want to question in connection with the fatal shootings of four police officers.
In both cases, warning flags were all over the place in the men’s interactions with law enforcement. Prosecutors warned of dangers to the community. Both men threatened family members and members of the court system. Yet in the most recent case, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the conservative who now has a weekend show on the Fox network, pardoned Clemmons nine years ago, citing his youth, against warnings by prosecutors.
This could be about liberal and conservative politics. About the hypocrisy of conservatives who rail against those who are “soft on crime,” yet pardon dangerous criminals and today duck behind careful statements issued by their PACs. But it’s not.
InvestigateWest journalists Carol Smith and Daniel Lathrop reported in depth on the case of Williams and his victim, Shannon Harps, using the case to tease apart the state’s mental health/judicial system, and examine where the money is truly spent when the sick don’t receive the care they need. Carol won the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism this year for her continuing work on that issue with a story on one family’s struggle, which appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before it ceased its print edition.
The issue hasn’t gone away, as the events of this weekend show.
As Carol’s work pointed out, states need to come to terms with the money spent on treating mental illness. They need to spend money where it is needed, not hide behind the illusion that money spent locking up the mentally ill in county jails and prisons or repeatedly dealing with them on the streets is somehow not spending money. We are not “saving” money by cutting needed services from the budget, or trimming community mental health workers’ salaries, or by reducing mental health spending to the point where the seriously mentally are repeatedly warehoused in jails or emergency rooms, growing increasingly ill, only to pop up in other areas of the country, to injure themselves or other members of the community. Washington state is now dealing with the loss of four police officers, shot dead in the line of duty, in the one of the most violent episodes in the state’s history. And how much money was saved?
In 2006, Arkansas spent $39 per capita on mental health, compared to the average per capita spending in the U.S. of $104, according to the most recent numbers compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Washington state spent $99 per capita that same year. These numbers don’t include the uncounted costs, of course, the emergency rooms, the county jails, the drunk tanks. And it’s unlikely the trend has gotten any better over the recession.
It’s time for us, Arkansas, Washington, and the rest of the U.S., to realize mental illness is not the other guy’s problem. It’s our problem, and the time to deal with it is now.
— Rita Hibbard