Recently, I took part in a meeting with a local superior court judge, a family lawyer, and two members of the district attorney’s office. I was under the impression that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss an issue relating to one of my clients. However, it turned into much more.
The judge, who has been on the bench for over 20 years, wrote a term on his chalkboard and then looked at each one of us. The term he wrote was “domestic violence.”
He was concerned not only with how to stop the plague of domestic violence in our community, but the root of this and many other problems in our criminal justice system. Oftentimes, this root problem is something that no one wants to talk about. It is severe to moderate mental illness.
For years, decades, and even centuries, there has been an easy solution in dealing with criminal defendants who suffer from mental health problems that they cannot control. Society would just lock them up and forget about them; out of sight, out of mind.
Our jails, prisons, sanitariums, and state mental health facilities are full of people who would not commit crimes but for their underlying mental illness. Unfortunately, there are still many people who believe that some form of incarceration is the only way to deal with these folks.
I know that this is not a simple problem with a simple solution. However, I also know that to potentially solve a problem, one must start at the taproot.
I would estimate that 20 % of all criminal defendants suffer from a mental illness that is not severe enough to prevent them from going to trial, but is severe enough to be the primary cause of criminal behavior.
I have seen this up close and personal many times. Fortunately, my clients or their families can usually afford private forensic psychiatric or psychological services, treatment, and intense monitoring of their situation. This is not a fix in all cases. However, it leads me to look toward a potential step in the right direction for all criminal defendants with mental health disease because I have personally seen treatment work.
In general, right now, an indigent defendant only has a right to a psychological evaluation by a professional paid by the very entity that is trying to prosecute him or her, the State of Georgia. These evaluations only encompass competency and sanity. The only treatment that is offered is to “make a person competent” so that the person can be properly prosecuted in court as a competent defendant.
This is not to say that our mental health professionals who are employed by the state are unethical in any way. They are doing their jobs very well. The problem lies with the goals of their jobs as provided by the General Assembly.
During our meeting, I broadly, and hopefully humbly, suggested that a county or judicial circuit could contract with a two professionals; an independent psychiatrist and an independent psychologist. These professionals could thoroughly evaluate each defendant who falls into that 20% with moderate to severe mental health issues.
If appropriate, each defendant could be assessed for his or her capacity to respond to treatment. If the defendant can and wants to respond to treatment, that could be done in an appropriate place, i.e. the county jail, in a hospital, while on restricted bond, or in less severe cases just on unrestricted bond.
Those who cannot or will not respond to treatment will be the most difficult to find a solution for.
This is just the beginning of an idea that may, in some way, further the requirements of justice, save the counties and state money, and decrease the jail and prison populations.
I also recognize that this “elephant in the room” is rife with problems that I have not mentioned in this short column. There may be much better ideas than mine. I just hope that this column reaches enough people to get this issue out in the open and ideas coming forth.
I have looked into the eyes of a man who was truly doomed to an existence of perpetual mental disease. I have seen that same man finally agree to take medications, cooperate with mental health staff, and be freed from a lock down institution after three years.
Seeing such a miracle will make a person look for a better way to deal with mental illness in our society.