Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mental Illness and the Courts

This last Friday, I began my day by going to court. It was, finally, time for the hearing for the young man who...impelled by voices...barricaded the entrance to my church. Though the church itself did not press charges, the state did. Law enforcement tends not to smile upon people who refuse to respond to a direct request.

We'd been praying for him in worship, but prayer needs to stir action, and so I'd doing more than that. I'd visited with his family, and visited with him in the state psychiatric institution where he was involuntarily admitted.

So it felt rather peculiar to be subpoenaed by the prosecution as a witness against him. That felt particularly odd as I sat in the courtroom with his family.

The courtroom experience was interesting. There seemed to be two clear types of case before the court that morning.

Most of the folks there were there on minor charges, like possession of drug paraphernalia or DUIs. They came in under their own power. Most had either lawyers or public defenders. Things for them went rather quickly, usually with a guilty plea followed by a commitment to do a treatment program.

Then there were other folks, whose charges were equally minor...typically trespassing. But they didn't enter the court on their own.

They were brought in handcuffed and in shackles, with officers flanking them. These folks appeared to have one primary thing in common. No, they weren't supervillains. They weren't unusually violent, or charged with heinous crimes.

Instead, every one of the shackled souls were rather obviously mentally ill. Several were homeless, or had been until they'd either disturbed the peace or been arrested for trespassing on private property. They were coming from custody at state run institutions. Some seemed to really struggle to understand what was happening to them. Others seemed clearly disoriented and/or agitated.

It was clear that for most of these individuals, cycling endlessly between incarceration and homelessness was the norm. It was the pattern of their lives. One fellow in particular had been through the court more than 25 times. If anything, the whole system seemed woefully dysfunctional, part of a feedback loop that crammed the docket of the court and left, really, no-one for the better.

Back in the middle part of the 20th century, folks like this were typically part of either state-run institutions or homes. But in the 1980s, as part of the "everything government does is wrong" movement, those institutions were defunded and shuttered. The idea was noble: let's put people out into their communities. Let's have localities care for them. Of course, localities didn't have the resources or the infrastructure to deal with the folks being dropped on their doorstep...so they didn't. Now, thirty years later, our mental health system is, for the indigent, desperately threadbare. Left to wander unsupervised and unmedicated, they are funnelled into our system of justice...and out...and in again. They do not compute.

The young man whose actions brought me into court that day seemed more lucid, and had served time, and was released into the custody of a confused but caring family. My hope and prayer is that he escapes the pointless, benighted cycle that our society inflicts on those afflicted with mental illness.