Today she explains what happens to defendants who suffer from mental illness and who get caught up in the justice system.
LIFE AS A PD: He won’t be able to tell you that I am his lawyer but he will likely be able to tell you that I am the person who gives him peanut-butter crackers every time he visits my office. This sweet quiet 22 year-old has a mental illness. Sam Marks doesn’t have a phone or a permanent address but some how he makes it to his numerous court appearances and office appointments.
Sam has been in and out of court for over a year. His big crime: Trespass. On the evening of February 24, 2014 Sam was arrested for being found in the rear of a vacant property. Ever since that night Sam has been caught up in the criminal justice system.
Dealing with mentally ill and intellectually disabled clients can be heart-wrenching thanks to the lack of support in the criminal justice system. It is so much harder on my clients since they are indigent and many lack insurance, support systems and a place to call home. The goal for the Public Defender’s Office is to get these people out of jail as soon as possible. The reason is obvious - jail is no place for a person with a mental disorder.
The problem is that many Judges don’t want to release these clients when they don’t have a place to live. Without an income or insurance it is not easy to find housing for these people who unfortunately are stuck in a system that doesn't have the resources needed to deal with them. Even if we find a bed at one of the wonderful non-profits in the area there is no guarantee that our client will remain at that place. There are cases where the Court orders a person with mental illness to stay at a specific location, but the person wanders off. Sadly, back in jail is where they eventually turn up, arrested for violating conditions of their release or missing a court date. Too often a mentally ill person will spend weeks or months in jail over a petty offense such as trespass, working through this convoluted obstacle course the system forces them into, whereas a competent person would have ended their case after a few days of time served.
There is a Mental Health Division in County Court. It is a therapeutic setting with therapists and access to special resources. The difference with the misdemeanor Mental Health Court is that the Judge has the discretion on which cases can stay in her division. A few weeks ago I tried to send another young man’s case to Mental Health Court but the Judge sent him back to regular court. I was told it was because of the charge, two counts of battery. I really don’t get it. It’s only a misdemeanor. The boy needed the help and access to the services that Mental Health Court is equipped to handle. Instead, the Judge decided not to keep the case and he was transferred back to my courtroom for us to try and figure out what to do— a courtroom that lacks specialized knowledge of mental health services. All the while depriving this young man of the opportunity to empower himself through encouraging access to these services. The reality here is that we are talking about minor crimes that are being committed by people suffering from mental illness so I am always dumbfounded when Mental Health Court kicks a case back for any reason other than that the person does not need the specialized mental health services.
The system makes dealing with incompetent cases so frustrating. Attorneys and Judges cannot let an incompetent defendant enter a plea if they are unable to understand the consequences of the proceedings or to participate in their defense. Which makes sense. Once there is a mental health concern doctors are ordered and competency hearings are held. The problem is that when a person is declared incompetent to proceed it does not stop the legal process. Instead it starts a lengthy one. In County Court, the place for misdemeanor crimes, hundreds of clients resolve their cases and move on with their lives while those declared incompetent remain in the system. I can't understand why the State doesn't drop most of these ridiculous charges and instead they spend the time in Court arguing against bail or asking that restrictions be put on mentally ill people before they can be released.
A person charged with a misdemeanor has to be found incompetent to proceed for a year, from the day a Court declares them incompetent, not from the date of the alleged crime, before their case is dismissed. Doctors re-evaluate the client at the year-end mark to make sure the person’s competency status hasn’t changed.
It’s Sam’s year-end mark and that is why he has been in my office more often this month. We have to meet with doctors who ask him questions such as: Do you know what a defense attorney does? Have you ever been in a fight and injured your head? What is 2 + 1?
I know Sam can’t answer those questions and perhaps that is why I was relieved when he shows up to his appointment this week. As usual he was an hour late, alone, and famished. At Sam’s request the first thing we did was to go into my office to my stash of peanut-butter crackers. Next we met with the first of two doctors. If Sam makes it to my office for his second doctor’s appointment and the doctors find Sam incompetent his Trespass case should be dismissed. A year and four months of hiring experts, holding hearings and bringing Sam back and forth to Court all this for being found in the rear of a vacant property.
Even if his case is dismissed there is one caveat, the State can bring back the charges if Sam’s competency is ever restored in the future.