February 05, 2005

Little Justice for Mentally Ill

Tragedies and violent crimes involving people who suffer with mental illness often get high-profile media attention, but for many, action from the legal system is the first real action that is ever taken in their cases. Due to publicity of violent cases, people with mental illness are seen as somehow more inherently violent or dangerous than the average person. However, examples such as the homicide committed by a mentally ill man in Alabama three weeks ago show that the danger is from the failure of legal and medical systems to intervene with treatment prior to a tragic breaking point.

Such is certainly the case in this most recent tragedy in Alabama. Prior to the incident, Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson concluded that "The warning signs had been there for a long time." However, lack of proper funding and a dirth of specially trained personnel are just two of the barriers to more helpful interventions. Although state law in Alabama allows the appointment of a special community health official with broad legal powers, there is no money in Calhoun County to actually hire such a person, or to pay for any medical treatment ordered by the hypothetical official.

This situation persists in many counties across America, despite statistics from a 1998 U.S. Dept of Justice study stating that ten percent of state prisoners and jail inmates reported a mental or emotional condition. Moreover, 52 percent of state prisoners with some mental illness in the study had committed violent crimes, and 25 percent of those offenses were against family members or intimates. With numbers such as these, it is hard to see why no one places a higher priority on equipping our law enforcement personnel with the tools and training they need to intervene before the crimes happen.

Presently in Calhoun County, even if someone appeals to the legal system to have a mentally ill and potentially dangerous loved one involuntarily committed, the case may sit in the courts for weeks before any action is taken. If and when the involuntary commitment is approved, the person will most likely sit in jail instead of receiving the care they need.

Sherriff Amerson concludes: "The process is time-consuming and offers little relief for law enforcement officers seeking to protect a person from themselves or others."

There are some hopeful steps being taken. For example, mental health courts are springing up in certain areas specifically for the trials of defendants with mental illnesses. The sentences include treatment for their conditions as well as appropriate reparations for crimes. Organizations such as NAMI also promote special training for law enforcement personnel. These programs teach officers how to effectively deal with someone suffering from a mental illness without resorting to early or unnecessary force.

Help support and advocate for these sorts of vital programs by visiting NAMI's Criminalization site

Original Source: "Mental illness, justice system often meet", Feb 4 2005. From EverythingAlabama (http://www.al.com)


I have enjoyed reading this article. Do you have any other related articles?

Posted by: Nancy McRae at July 25, 2007 06:44 PM

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