Saturday, January 21, 2006

Mental Illness

Sometimes, I get so frustrated over politics -- there are massive amounts of words spilled everyday about "the left" and "the right." As best as I can tell, most of this blather has more do to with ego and personality then actual rigorous policy analysis and isn't productive. Or, the focus in political discourse is on foundational issues, which don't really effect the average person in a real way.

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.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


The prosecutor realized the problem with her case on Monday, and the question became, "do I dismiss and recharge or do I work this out today." Thankfully, she opted for the latter.

My guy pled guilty to a disorderly conduct and got credit for time served. Hopefully, he can move on to the more serious charges against him now in a better position than he might have been otherwise.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


The office policy is to represent everyone who is incarcerated. So, if Bill Gates was arrested by the police, we represent him at his bond hearing and such.

In November, I was in Court in Friday morning for inmate arraignments. There was one fellow who initially asked for my help, so I talked to him and then talked to the prosecutor. He had made several trips over from the jail, and was growing frustrated because this case wasn't going forward. He has several others with our office, as well. The bottom line was that he didn't think that I was doing anything for him, so he fired me. Which was fine with me -- I had several other people (probably 10 or 15) that I was trying to help that morning.

Later, he decided that maybe he did want to be represented on this case. Which means that, unless he hired a lawyer, he'd get me back.

I went to speak with him today at the jail, and I have to say that I am hopeful that we'll be able to get a good result for him. First, he basically told me that he is innocent, and I believe him. Scond, the prosecutor told me yesterday that she doesn't have one of her witnesses. That means that one of his two charges is going to go away, and the State's case on the other is seriously undermined. His case is set for trial on Monday. We're ready to try it, but I think we'll be able to work out a gravy deal for him. At least, that's what I am hoping.

In any event, it's a nice feeling to know that we're probably going to get a good result for a guy that was extremely frustrated with us.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


I thought that, over the holiday, I caught up on all of the paperwork I had left. You see, I started this job mid-stream, and ended up taking over someone else's files. That's always tricky enough. But no one really oriented me on office procedures and such. Apparently, everyone figured that, because I have been out of school for so long, I'd figure everything out.

Well, I thought I had.

Like most bureaucratic institutions, we jump through a lot of hoops for funding. I ended up closing a boatload of files in December, which not only makes our numbers look better, but gives a better picture of the work I have been doing. Kind of.

You see, some of these were files that we never really worked. State law requires us to speak to everyone with 72 hours of their arrest. So we would do that and open a file, even though we might not ever speak to that person again. And then the file hangs around in the office until it becomes clear that the person doesn't want us to represent him. Those were most of the files that I closed last month. There were, of course, some files of my own that I had actually worked. We do, afterall, try to be productive.

Today, I find out that I wasn't quite done. Our policy is to represent everyone who is in jail, unless they hire somone, regardless of income. So, I've talked to a lot of guys over the past three months, and I got their cases taken care of. But I didn't realize that I'm supposed to keep paperwork on that, too. It isn't much, really; just the regular paperwork you might get (probation revocation petition, or accusation) and a coversheet explaining what happened. But, we need these files opened and closed for caseload calculations, which plays directly into budget. So, I've got to get these files closed pronto.

While preparing for trials next week...