19 July 2022

Reason or Insanity

    I meet the mentally ill, an omnipresent feature in the criminal justice system.

    They come into my cinder block courtroom located in the basement of the jail. Some shuffle in, sliding along with a sleepwalker’s gait. Usually slump-shouldered and dressed in dirty clothes, they stand quietly until it is their turn before the judge. They accept their instructions, answering in small voices, dull and flat. Other times, they twist and turn, unable to stand still. They deliver rapid-fire answers laden with asides. Others are brought in, cuffed to wheelchairs, or clad in suicide protection clothes and spit-guards. Although occasionally they sing or berate me during the brief hearings, a surprising number of them are polite in their responses given the expectations I form when they arrive in court ringed with security. 

    When they unleash a fusillade of profanity, they are quickly escorted out of court.
    The easiest defendants to identify are my criminal trespassers. They panhandle or simply camp outside gas stations. A couple of my regulars berate patrons seeking lodging at local hotels. The business owners call, and the police arrive. Law enforcement confirms that the loiterers have been formally warned to stay off the property and then they arrest them. They usually go quietly—they know the drill. Although ill, some have a well-honed survival strategy. When the weather turns too hot or too cold, they walk to the bond desk of the Sheriff's Office and settle. They refuse to leave. The deputies arrest them and walk them back to the jail. The scene is like Otis on the Andy Griffith Show only without the good humor.

    If you’re into Venn diagrams, the overlap between mental illness and my criminal trespassers is high. Criminal trespass, however, is not the only offense where I meet the mentally ill. They beat their loved ones, self-medicate with street drugs, set fires, steal, threaten, and hurt. Some research pegs the number of jail inmates reporting mental health problems at 64 percent. Not all my mentally ill are poor. I met an upper-middle-class man last week whose paranoia told him that the neighbors were threatening him. He responded by launching golf balls, shattering their windows. When magistrated, he assured me that he would sue me and all my co-conspirators. 

    I don’t worry much about the ones who only pack a Titleist. 

    I want to pause and parse words for a moment. Mental illness doesn’t make someone a criminal. Limited coping skills, poor impulse control, and a lack of access to proper prescriptions and services does make a criminal path more likely.

    No one likes pouring criminal justice resources into a revolving jail door for the petty crimes of the mentally ill we see. The absence of an alternative safety net brings them to us. My thoughts keep returning to the criminal trespasser. I have never met a police officer or district attorney who chose this career, dreaming of arresting or prosecuting the mentally ill panhandler. Those are not the defendants we tune into Law and Order to see. But I also think about the convenience store owner who watches her customers go to the service station across the street because there, the panhandlers aren’t harassing customers. 

    Sadly, I don’t offer a solution. Better minds have contemplated the issue without success. 

    In 2015, Sandra Bland was preparing to begin a job with her alma mater, Prairie View A & M, located in southeast Texas. Readers may remember the case, it garnered international attention. A brief recap—Sandra Bland was pulled over near campus while returning from an Independence Day vacation to visit with her relatives. What began as a traffic stop for failing to signal a lane change escalated into confrontation. Ms. Bland was arrested for assault on a peace officer. During jail intake, she reported a history of depression and a prior suicide attempt. Unable to post bail, Bland remained in county jail. Three days after her arrest, she hung herself in her cell. 

    In response, during the next legislative session, Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act. One component increased officer education for de-escalating possibly dangerous situations. Relevant to our conversation today, the legislation provided a system for reporting mental health concerns to the criminal courts. It also encouraged law enforcement agencies to get mentally ill misdemeanor defendants out of the criminal justice system through diversion programs and no-money, personal bonds. 

    To divert, however, the agencies need a place for the defendants to go. And with that, we circle back around to the absence of an adequate alternative. Locally, we’re still trying to find ways to cope with our numbers. 

    As readers and writers about crime, it is easy to overlook these cases. They only make the news when something dramatic occurs, as it did with Sandra Bland. This Independence Day as the temperatures soared around Texas, I saw again a spike in criminal trespass arrests. Non-violent, inconvenience misdemeanors are easy cases for the system to churn. A few days in jail and they are pled to credit for time served. 

    A better, more permanent solution proves far more difficult. 
    Until next time.


  1. Mark, I see them in prison, and it ranges from the truly frightening to the heartbreaking. The "Lennies" - mentally handicapped, often with a (barely) 4th grade mental acuity. The ones who obsess on their grievances, and take them out on whoever's nearest. The ones who've been strung out on meth for so long there's not much left in there to work with. And none of them getting treatment, except a pill that may or may not work on them. We need an ARMY of mental health professionals for this country, not to mention housing for the homeless - but that would cost money. Sigh...

  2. Thanks, Eve. I trusted that you'd seen them too.


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