Saturday, May 15, 2010

Washington State Law to Transfer Mentally Ill to Prison

This spring Washington Governor Chris Gregoire signed into law a provision that would allow the Secretary of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services to move a patient found not guilty by reason of insanity, from a hospital to a prison.

The law does not provide for a hearing, legal counsel, or any other due process measures to stop the government from moving a patient, acquitted of a crime, to prison. The law only requires the government to make a written statement that the person can’t be managed in the hospital because of security concerns. The patient cannot object, request a review or have a hearing on the matter.

Before the bill was signed into law a number of organizations that represent the interests of the mentally ill, as well as the ACLU, and criminal defense attorneys encouraged the governor to veto the bill on the basis of its questionable constitutionality.

The law imprisons people who have been found not guilty. If that were not repugnant enough to the rights and liberties afforded by the U.S. Constitution think about the following; the law deprives individuals of due process and assistance of counsel, it violates double jeopardy by punishing people for crimes for which they were acquitted, it violates ex post facto by creating a new punishment retroactively and it singles out for punishment individuals with an acknowledged disability-mental illness.

The ill conceived nature of this law becomes even more poignant with the release of a recent survey by the National Sheriffs' Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center that found 3.2 times as many seriously mentally ill people in prisons than in hospitals. Couple those prison findings with the explosion of people suffering from debilitating mental illness and a law like the one in Washington come into clearer focus.

In Anatomy of an Epidemic, Robert Whitaker describes the extent of debilitating mental illness in America. The number of adults, ages 18 to 65, on the federal disability rolls due to mental illness jumped from 1.25 million in 1987 to four million in 2007. Roughly one in every 45 working-age adults is now on government disability due to mental illness.

The future doesn't look very promising. The epidemic has extended to the nation's children. The number of children who receive a federal payment because of a severe mental illness rose from 16,200 in 1987 to 561,569 in 2007, a 35-fold increase.

My Take

America's prisons are already de facto mental hospitals. The Sheriffs' Association report found that about 1 in 6 inmates are seriously mentally ill. The deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s and 10970s has yielded little positive effect on the seriously mentally ill. Treatment in the community has been ineffectual and often the unmedicated seriously mentally ill have been incarcerated rather than treated.

Homeless, seriously mentally ill people often become chronic offenders. Crimes like trespass, retail theft, public urination, disorderly conduct and panhandling add up, over time, to more serious sanctions and often prison time.

Going to prison for a seriously mentally ill offender is not like a healthy offender going to prison. Mentally ill inmates can at times be disruptive or display chronic behavior problems. Those problems make them less likely to be paroled and more likely to end up in restrictive housing units-solitary confinement-which further exacerbates their condition.

Seriously mentally ill inmates often serve their maximum sentence. They leave prison without supervision and no place to live. They end up on the street and the cycle begins again.

A more humane way to handle the seriously mentally ill would be to house them in hospitals rather than prisons. If you're going to spend $25,000 as year to house a seriously mentally ill person in prison, couldn't you send that amount on housing that individual in a psychiatric hospital? The state could save on the related law enforcement and court costs. Hospitalization could reduce the victimization costs related to the nuisance crimes and provide a more appropriate disposition for the patient and his or her family.

Unfortunatley, hospitalization is no longer a real option in most cases. In 1955, there was one hospital bed for every 300 Americans. Today, there is one bed for every 3,000 Americans. Society needs to immediately rethink the criminalizatiion of the seriously mentally ill.

No comments:

Post a Comment