Take for instance, the Alito confirmation hearings. Much in the media has been said about briefs he wrote 20 years ago regarding abortion. Don't get me wrong -- abortion is a very important civil rights issue; but, in the grand scheme of things, it effects a relatively small portion of our population. Obviously, people are heavily invested in the issue. Let us not forget that some people kill and bomb over this issue. However, there are other, more pressing, issues which have a much greater societal impact.
I just started this new job in October and I have to say that I am appalled at the number of people with serious, chronic, mental illness that are caught up in the criminal justice system in urban areas. I can see the emotional cost that families pay, having to deal largely on their own with a family member who can't integrate, because I hear the weariness in their voices. In addition, there are the obvious costs of law enforcement, jail administration, docket clogging, and, eventually, treatment costs.
The law requires that every criminal defendant be able to (1) assist his lawyer in the defense of the case and (2) be "sane" at the time the offense was committed. The first concept is competency to stand trial and the second concept is criminal responsibility. When it appears that either of these two issues are in question, a defense lawyer can request a forensic psychological evaluation, which is conducted by the state. If the defendant fails either test, then he or she is committed to a secure psychiatric institution for treatment.
When I was working in Northern Michigan and here in the Southern Metro area, I was working in rural or suburban areas. During those three years, I filed 3 petitions and the State doctors determined that one of the clients was not guilty by reason of insanity, or wasn't criminally responsible. That guy, who really was very sweet, is most likely still housed in a secure psychiatric hospital, five years later.
In the four months I've been working in this new office, I have already filed 5 petitions, and have inherited 3 cases where petitions were filed. Of these petitions, I know that 2 will be found incompetent, without a doubt. These clients will then be housed in a secure psychiatric facility until they are returned to competency. At that time, they will be returned to the criminal justice system and the cases will proceed. These are generally short term committments of 3 to 6 months.
The problem is, most of these folks at the misdemeanor level either (1) did not understand the difference between right and wrong at the time they committed the alleged offense or (2) acted as they did because they were compelled to do so by a delusion. In other words, they were insane. However, there aren't enough resources to treat all the people who aren't criminally repsonsible. These committments generally last a much longer time. The beds are limited and the State would be prefer to house murders, as opposed to guys who jumped the subway turn-style. So, the State conducts a very cursory criminal responsbility examination, concludes that responsbility cannot be conclusively determined, and the prosecution proceeds. The problem is, most of these folks aren't dangerous and never graduate to the big leagues of the criminal justice system, and continue to offend at the misdemeanor level.
In this country, how can we possibly tolerate such a situation? Many of these folks could lead satisfying lives if they were involved in successful treatment programs. We could reduce the criminal justice costs of dealing with them on an acute basis. We could alleviate the suffering of the families involved, who are dealing with, in some cases, decades of mental illnes and very little support. How is it possibly tenable in this country to shunt these folks to the side and not address the problems that they face? Unfortunately, this issue doesn't fit the agenda of the talking-heads, and we get more rhetoric over "femi-nazi's" and Bush's purported I.Q., finger-pointing and partisan idiocy. Its enough to make a person sick.