Can You Tell from Our Jails That Mental Illness is Not a Crime? P4 - Sparrow Law Firm

We are turning back to our discussion of jails and detainees with mental illness. When we left off in our May 25 post, we were talking about North Carolina’s efforts to get these detainees the treatment they need and to alleviate the strain on county jails. Several counties in the state have jail diversion programs, and a handful of counties have mental health courts in place.

The North Carolina Court System lists five counties — Wake not among them — that have active mental health courts right now. These courts are only open to offenders with “a mental health diagnosis or mental health treatment history.” Offenders determined to have a severe and persistent mental illness are given priority. Needless to say, public safety is a consideration as well.

Mental health courts operate as complements to drug courts. The idea is to allow the courts, the state mental health system and local providers to work together to find the best treatment option for the offender. Given the right treatment, repeat offenders especially will be able to rejoin society in time.

This is such a complicated area of the law. These programs serve detainees who have not been charged with — or who are not suspected of committing — serious crimes. Where does that leave people with mental illness who are accused of committing more serious, more violent crimes?

The North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty argues that “[s]everely mentally ill defendants are unable to understand their actions or participate in their defense,” and that disability makes them less culpable for their actions. True enough, but how does the justice system respond?

We’ll finish this up in our next post.

Source: The Council of State Governments, “Launch of National Initiative Offers Counties Research-Based Support to Address Growing Mental Health Crisis in Jails,” May 6, 2015