[Tranc{E]nd} (seattlesque) wrote,
[Tranc{E]nd}
seattlesque

Benefits and Hazards of "Mental Health Court"

(please read The Aerial View as a companion to this article.)

If we are to believe in justice in our society, we have to have faith that no one should need to break laws to be happy. Therefore, anyone who is convicted of a crime should be regarded (at some level) as having a mental illness. This would mean someone isn't just "criminal" or just "insane"...but that there is only one status: "criminally insane". If you cannot see someone in both lights you are either missing the compassion for the criminal (to recognize them as sick) or you are falsely labeling someone insane (by not requiring yourself to show the harm in their belief system). An ideal world would thus build a strong formal relationship between the criminal justice system and the mental health establishment.

Yet few people know just how intertwined psychiatry and the legal system have already become. Seattle is particularly aggressive in this respect, with a special Mental Health Court, which handles all of the cases of those who have been tagged as being of a "psychiatric" nature. There are certainly instances where this affords the greater compassion you would expect--such as lenience to those who commit crimes out of pure confusion instead of malice. Yet for those expecting due process, it can be a haphazard and dangerous combination.

This comes from the illusion intrinsic to this very parental system, because it is actually a psychological review board shaped like a court. It's an awkard adaptation, on par with a cassette-shaped audio cable. The lawyers, case workers, and judge can all work together off-record, and then playback the scenario they want later in the mode of court protocol. "These people shouldn't be in jail, they should be in mental hospitals or outpatient programs," is the primary mantra of view of everyone involved. The question of whether the crime is minor, major, or even whether you are guilty or not isn't the big issue.

A paranoid defendant who believes that a conspiracy is being pushed against them is somewhat correct--their presence here is largely a formality, and there's little interest in what they has to say about the incident which brought them into court. Most decisions are made based on what the psychiatrists report. Angry defendants might think this is an issue of competence with their lawyer, and try and represent themselves...or try and speak to the judge to explain what's going on. This is a bad idea and interpreted as further signs of incompetence.

It wouldn't be so bad if there was a sincere effort made to orient people to what is going on, but largely it is assumed that such efforts are unnecessary because the participants are "too crazy to understand". I speak only for myself when I say the following things were surprising findings, and whenever something surprising happens it can be very disorienting:

Did you know that the police don’t need a warrant to enter your home, even if you own it and are there alone, if there is "probable cause" to believe that you pose a threat to yourself?

Did you know that you could be taken against your will to a hospital, and held there by force, without being placed under arrest? If this occurs, then you are personally responsible for the bills, which are basically guaranteed to exceed $1000.

Did you know that you can be locked in an empty room in a hospital, with no information of how long you’ll be held there or when someone is coming to see you? After that you can be put through various systems of extreme physical restraint merely for calling for help.

Did you know that the assessment of whether you would be able to behave yourself in a courtroom is made before you get a chance to step foot in a court? This means that if you have a feud with jail guards over the treatment you are receiving, that could keep you from standing before a judge indefinitely.

Did you know that the prosecution is able to claim the defendant is not competent to be prosecuted? If they do this, then the clock stops on your right to a speedy trial…and your case can be put off indefinitely…even if you want to face the charges (such as in the case of, say, a simple misdemeanor?)

Did you know that placing your free phone call from jail is considered "discretionary" based on your mental state, and if the jail guards don’t want to let you make it, they don’t have to?

Did you know that it's not possible to get photographs even of an empty cell inside King County Jail, without a superior court order, to see what conditions prisoners are kept in?

These are things that every citizen should know. Although I ultimately have come to understand that the structures have arisen out of a largely well-meaning department of social services, they serve as a confusing splice in the legal system most Americans take for granted is there when they need it--with some hard guarantees.
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