Thursday, May 15, 2014

Orange County Clears The Way For Treatment Of The Mentally Ill

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Orange County is implementing Laura's Law  in its criminal courts. The article is entitled "O.C. clears way for court-ordered treatment of mentally ill." This allows court-ordered, intensive outpatient treatment for people with severe mental illnesses who refuse medication because their illness impairs their ability to make rational decisions.

Although this law has been in California since 2002, Orange County was one of the last counties to implement it.  Why is this important? Because being mentally ill is being criminalized.  If there is a schizophrenic or bipolar client who does something that falls in the criminal court (shoplifting, assault, etc.), it is likely that they will violate probation IF they do not take their medication and get treatment. In the past, the courts treated all defendants the same with a disproportionate high percentage of defendants who are mentally ill and are not getting proper treatment.

Without this special program for outpatient treatment, many mentally ill fell through the cracks. If they were truly not competent at all, then they could go to mental health court where they would be hospitalized or medicated until they were competent. However, many of the mentally ill are treatable IF they are compliant and take their medication.

I have represented many individuals who have mental illness (schizophrenic, bipolar, and so on), drug, alcohol or other addictions (there is a drug court and courts are used to treatment being a part of probation), or developmental or neurological issues (autism, Aspergers, OCD, etc.) In those cases, we have to tailor the case around the individual and create our own plan since the courts do not have the resources or system in place to handle these cases.

Case Study of Defendant With Schizophrenia.  I had a client who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was also developmentally disabled due to seizures as a young man. He set a fire in the hall of his parent's condominium unit, immediately put it out with minimal damage, and called the police and 911 about the fire so he could give them CDs with all his writings on what the crows on the telegraph pole had told him about Osama Bin Laden. He was charged with arson, bail was set at $650,000 and when I wanted him released with treatment for bail, the supervisor in the LA County District Attorney's Office position was that all arsonists are crazy.

My client was offered a felony with no jail time but I did NOT want him to have an arson conviction because then how would he ever obtain housing once his parents or sister passed away and couldn't take care of him? It took almost one year of bouncing back and forth between mental health court (where they first found him competent in an absolutely shabby evaluation) and regular criminal court.  The facilities for hospitalization were full with long waiting lists.  Ultimately, I was able to get the case dismissed but it was with private psychiatrist, setting up our own treatment plan, working with Regional Center and a team approach.  

This was just one of many clients I have had who had mental health issues that got them in the criminal courts and then once there made it difficult for them to either meet the terms and conditions of treatment or to complete probation successfully.  

"What Are Mental Health Courts? Mental health courts are a type of problem solving court that combine judicial supervision with community mental health treatment and other support services in order to reduce criminal activity and improve the quality of life of participants. California implemented its first mental health courts in 1999. Mental health courts do their best to make more effective use of limited criminal justice and mental health resources, to connect individuals to treatment and other social services in the community, to improve outcomes for offenders with mental illness in the criminal justice system, to respond to public safety concerns, and to address jail overcrowding and the disproportionate number of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system.

Attorney Parting Thoughts: Orange County is taking the first step but this needs to be a TOP priority in our criminal justice system. It is also costing taxpayers much more to jail those with mental health issues instead of treating them. In addition, private attorneys, deputy district attorneys, public defenders, and judges need to be better educated about the options available and work on changing this broken system.  Where there are no programs or funding, it should be determined if the person qualifies for SSI disability, Medicare or Medi-Cal (California's version of Medicaid). Everyone needs to be creative in getting the funding and treatment needed instead of letting our system jail and warehouse those with mental health issues or developmental disabilities.

Posted by Tracy Green, Esq.
Green and Associates, Attorneys at Law
Los Angeles, California
Phone: 213-233-2260


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