This post has been a long time in the making. Over the past few months, I’ve had to deal with clients – and have observed other lawyers dealing with their clients – who have severe mental health problems. And each one of us can tell you that there’s nothing more difficult – or more heartwrenching – than coming to an appropriate resolution of a criminal case involving a defendant with mental health problems.
Not only does one have the normal problems of communicating with a person who may be hearing voices, or who may believe that he is an FBI recruit who has to save the world while the Russians are tracking him with embedded micro-chips, but one also struggles with the failings of a system that has no room for clients like that.
While I usually decry the heartlessness of prosecutors and judges on this blog, I have to say my experiences in this area have been to the contrary. While they don’t get in the way, they do join the defeaning chorus that reminds us of the futility of our efforts.
There’s just nowhere to put clients with mental health problems. And I’m not talking about short-term facilities for 30 or 90 days or the mental hospital, but a true long-term residential program where patients are treated for their mental health problems. Could I get a client into a 90 day program? Sure, but that doesn’t address anything. 90 days is too short. The clients are given some meds; the voices stop and they’re sent on their way. You and I both know that isn’t going to solve or address the underlying problem and as soon as the medications stop working the voices will return.
So without a place that can house such a client for a year or two or three, there’s only one alternative: prison. The worst alternative of them all may be the only one. Prisons may be the only place capable of housing these patients with supervision for an extended period of time. Like there aren’t enough people to fill our prisons already.
And what happens when someone with severe mental health issues goes to prison? Nothing productive. They’re given some meds, kept barely sane and then released when their term is up. There are no plans in place, no treatment, no structure and no support. Released into the wild – like all other prisoners, I must add – but with an added disadvantage.
The State of CT has some mental health facilities, but none really equipped to house patients long-term and give them psychiatric care. And the Governor talked recently about closing one of those facilities and removing its 150 or so beds.
So when a judge agrees with you that your client shouldn’t be in jail, but then follows up with: “what’s the solution?” and you have none, it is a frustrating feeling of failure.
There is no solution, currently, and there doesn’t seem to be one on the books in the near future. And so our prisons will continue to be populated by people who have no business being there and who will continue to get ignored. Who wins in this scenario, really?