Mentally ill draw officials' attention

Those in court system may need help instead of jail, advocates say

November 23, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Mental health advocates are looking for ways to help a small group of mentally ill individuals who have become well known to Howard County police, attorneys and judges.

They are not hardened career criminals, but they routinely commit minor crimes that put them through a revolving door of arrest, court, jail and back again.

With the help of key players in the criminal justice system, mental health advocates want to explore models to help this group receive assistance instead of jail time.

As a first step, the board of directors of the county's Mental Health Authority met last month with attorneys, judges and other law enforcement and courthouse representatives last month for an informal discussion on the subject.

"These are people who, for lack of a better word, get charged with `nuisance' crimes," said Donna Wells, executive director of the Mental Health Authority.

"They take up a lot of time in the criminal justice system, don't get the services they need and are creating havoc in the community," she said.

Typically, their offenses include disorderly conduct, trespassing, resisting arrest and passing bad checks. A few cases involve violent crimes.

"It would be a good thing to have a thoughtful, coordinated approach to whether we should be treating these folks with the criminal model, or should we be trying to think about how to do something more along the treatment model," said Howard Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who attended the meeting.

"It's not like we're dealing with the future Al Capones of the world," he said. "We're dealing with people who have serious mental illness."

With no money to address the problem, Wells stressed that her goal is to continue discussions with interested parties and share information.

Coordinating

"There is no coordinated approach," she said. "What we're hoping to do is provide that coordination."

Wells said that might mean the assignment of a social worker or case manager who would follow these cases in the court system and work with others to determine an appropriate resolution.

"Our judges are working in the dark," Wells said. "They really don't know what to do with these folks."

From a lawyer's perspective, the cases would appear to be cut and dried. But District Public Defender Carol A. Hanson said the attorneys in her office put in a good deal of time.

"These clients are needy," she said, noting that their lawyers might need to look for an alternative sentence to jail or have family gather mental health records to argue for court-ordered treatment.

Based on his observations, Sweeney said that within the group of mentally ill defendants he sees fairly regularly, there are two subsets - the older, familiar faces who are longtime county residents, and young adults suffering from bipolar disorder, recently out of school and getting into trouble.

"They have no structure, they've aged out of special education and there's zero for them," he said. "So they're not taking their meds [medications], and they're out there at 22 years old doing drugs or dumb things, like getting in a hundred-mile-per-hour chase with police."

While some of these mentally ill offenders are recognized by criminal justice authorities,many more land in jail unknown and untreated.

According to a report released by Human Rights Watch this month, one in six of the country's 2.1 million inmates is mentally ill.

Sweeney said the large mentally ill population in jails is the legacy of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s, when psychiatric hospitals released patients with insufficient community treatment resources in place.

Modern asylums

"Our jails have become the asylums of the modern era," he said.

"It used to be in the bad old days that if somebody acted up and got off the chartered course we have in society, we would pack them up and send them off to Springfield," a state psychiatric hospital in Sykesville, Sweeney said.

"They might get some treatment, they might not. But at least they were protected from hurting themselves or anybody else."

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