As a writer I’ve had success in a number of genres. The one gaping exception is on the subject of mental illness, or our society’s neglect of it. It’s one topic that people don’t want to deal with.
A number years ago I had an article published in a prominent journal. When I submitted another article about two years later, one dealing with mental illness and the law, a new editor wrote to vehemently reject it. He went on to say that he would have turned down the published article had he been editor at the time.
Interesting enough, the journal went into a substantial decline of quality with the new editor. Nevertheless, he had taken issue with my statement to the effect that courts of law are the junkyards of our society.
Yet last year, I heard Judge Steve Leifman speak at Fordham University’s Law and Neuroscience Center. Judge Leifman presides in Miami-Dade County, Florida. He spoke of the huge problem he encountered in Miami-Dade County, where large numbers of mentally ill persons charged with crimes, often trivial ones, were housed in an antiquated jail for long periods of time.
Judge Leifman responded to this problem by developing a system whereby criminal suspects with mental illnesses are connected with services as early in a case as the time arrest usually occurs. As police officers are necessarily involved at this stage, they had to be trained in recognizing and properly responding to persons with mental illnesses. Judge Leifman therefore worked with the police chiefs in his jurisdiction to develop this program.
Interestingly enough, over twelve years ago, I was involved with a similar project in Onondaga, the New York county where I practice law. A Family Court judge started a committee for the purpose of connecting parties having mental health issues with services.
We envisioned a screening process for these issues in both criminal and Family Court cases. And as with the Miami-Dade County program, we recognized that police officers would need to be trained to recognize these issues at the initiation of criminal cases.
We were doomed for lack of funding from both the state and federal governments. Andrew Cuomo, when he became governor, continued a long-standing tradition of making mental health the first place for budget cuts.
We also suffered from governmental opposition. The district attorney and local police chiefs supported the program, but the county departments of Social Services and Mental Health opposed it on issues of who would be controlling the process.
In his presentation, Judge Leifman spoke further of the large section of our population that is incarcerated, and the huge costs of this massive incarceration. In this he repeated the concerns of other close observers who note these costs are breaking our state and federal budgets. Judge Leifman commented that money could be used for much-needed infrastructure instead being spent on incarceration.
This system has been built on the laziness of our prejudices. Indiscriminately we hold that those accused of crimes should be locked up for long periods of time. We don’t wish to realize that the realities of criminal justice are much more complex than TV shows and politicians would have us believe. Often there are much more productive and cheaper alternatives to incarceration.
A large number of persons criminally accused have mental illnesses. They often are not able to even make the intent needed for the commission of crimes under our Anglo-American law.
Mental health has been for decades a low governmental and societal priority. As the mentally ill seem voiceless, often afraid to come forward due to the prejudices against them, they can be easily cast aside and exploited.
We heard decades ago of the horrors of mental institutions. People would often be housed in such places for large chunks of their lives under inhumane conditions.
In New York during the 1970’s, Governor Hugh Carey closed most of the mental hospitals. In other such as Alabama, following much litigation over the rights of patients, large numbers of mental institutions were also closed.
The problem lay that in the aftermath, state budgets remained drastically reduced. No alternatives to institutionalization were set up or explored. No aftercare or outpatient provisions were established.
Unlike their European counterparts, Americans with mental illnesses were given no reasonable access to medication or treatment. The prejudices remained, the topic remained taboo and the mental health issues remained far removed from mainstream medicine.
As Judge Leifman observed, the issues left unaddressed by governors and legislatures ended up in the courts. Our society has regressed in this area to standards that seemed barbaric and inhumane even to the Victorians.
Over the past four decades, the mentally ill have been criminally accused and incarcerated in massive numbers. Jails providing minimal and often no treatment have become the mental institutions of the early twenty-first century.
Yet we can be educated. Many of us who work in the criminal justice system have realized the need for mental health treatment for a large number of individuals facing criminal charges. In February of this year, I heard the district attorney of New York City, Cyrus Vance, Jr., speak at the Fordham Center. Vance has been successful in providing treatment to many people who would otherwise be imprisoned.
The time has come for our law courts to stop being used as society’s junkyards. It’s time that we address mental health, and see legal and human realities with new eyes. It’s time that the New York City’s new policies on mental health treatment be instituted on a statewide and national level. The system must be revolutionized.