July 11, 2006
Not in my nice clean police car!
A short article in today's Inquirer reminded me that the problem of mentally ill criminals is not limited to the New York subway system. Notwithstanding all their protection and security measures, even the courts aren't safe:
YORK, Pa. - The county sheriff has apologized for what he called an "embarrassing and egregious" security breakdown after court security workers missed a knife later thrown at a judge in a courtroom.Intrigued not so much by the breach of security, but by the type of alleged suspect who'd come to an alleged court to throw an alleged knife at an alleged judge, I found another news report, with more alleged background:
The man charged with hurling a butcher knife at a county judge Thursday was also arrested 2½ years ago, accused of threatening to blow up the courthouse and demanding to talk to Satan.Looks like the alleged suspect slipped through the cracks, doesn't it?
I'm wondering about the cracks. Is there a pattern in which an accused suspect's mental illness, while not being a defense to a crime (it isn't), becomes a de facto opportunity for buck passing by everyone concerned?
As a practical matter, incarcerating the mentally ill poses problems -- one being that there is no way to force criminals into treatment:
"It's kind of like a revolving door," Mr. McHugh said. "When they need room at the forensic hospital, the inmates come back, and they may take their medication or they may not. Our department does not have the legal authority to medicate someone against their will."Is this leading to a culturally ingrained (if not officially acknowledged) status quo? Are the mentally ill just too much trouble?
When I served as a Berkeley Police Review Commissioner, I used to hear laments from officers who just didn't know what to do with crazy people when they were the subjects of complaints. Some -- not all -- were called "homeless," and this was reflected on police cititions with the word "NOMAD" appearing as the "address." The cops knew they'd never show up for court, and they didn't want them to. They didn't want crazy filthy homeless people urinating in their nice clean police cars either.
Do I blame them? Hardly.
One time, a homeless man broke into my car, tore open a bag of dog food I'd left inside, ate some dog food, washed it down with engine coolant I had in the back seat, then passed out. I know this because the next morning when I saw a man sitting in my car and angrily told him to get out, he promptly puked all over himself and the front seat -- and after he staggered away I saw the open coolant container and dog food bag along with the mess he'd made. I say this not to engage in mindless homeless-bashing, but to illustrate a simple fact of life: no one wants to deal with mentally ill, dysfunctional people. I'm not sure the problem is that they slip through the cracks so much as it is society's game to ignore them in the hope they'll just go away. Only when they finally do something really serious do they get attention. Until then, there really is no system.
Beginning in the 1960s, deinstitutionalization, a policy of hospital closures, developed in response to advocates who argued that Americans were being warehoused in state mental institutions and would receive better care in their communities. Furthermore, the development of more effective psychotropic medications promised better symptom control, and a greater chance that some patients could eventually care for themselves. In response, state governments dramatically accelerated the release of patients and the downsizing of state mental hospitals. In 1955, state mental hospital populations peaked at 559,000 persons. Today, 70,000 individuals with severe mental illnesses are housed in public psychiatric hospitals. In the past decade, 40 state mental hospitals have closed, while more than 400 new prisons have opened. "I'm very suspect of deinstitutionalization," Dion says. "It just cost-defected from the state mental hospitals to the jails. Now the state can say they have a more caring, loving system in their hospitals."Except that the jails, prisons, and police don't want them. They prefer "real" criminals. The mentally ill, it is thought, simply "don't belong" there.
Legal advocacy groups, of course, make lots of trouble for the police and prison system, as mentally ill criminals are in a never-never land (as well as a special category against which discrimination is forbidden). It is considered unfair that they be treated like prisoners, but of course in many cases there are no viable treatment options (closed state hospitals, no compulsory treatment, no halfway houses, no money, etc.)
Ignoring a problem in the hope that it will go away has a poor track record.
It's not a crack that mentally ill criminals are falling through. It's a huge, de facto gap.
posted by Eric on 07.11.06 at 08:41 AM
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