Mental Health Madness

I was recently appointed to represent a young woman charged with a felony.  We can call her “Jasmine.”  Upon reviewing her file and the police report, it seemed something was very strange.   Jasmine was the passenger in a stolen vehicle that was owned by a law enforcement officer.  She was partially undressed and in the car with a man who she didn’t know when the vehicle was stopped.

When I went to talk to her, she was irate.  She was confused about why she was being charged with Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle and began yelling.  The other women in the holding cell tried to calm her down.  I tried to calm her down.  Jasmine was just stringing words together that made no sense at all.  I couldn’t ask her simple questions such as “Where is your family?” or “Who can I call to help you?”  I noticed she had a medical bracelet on her arm.  I tried to ask her if she had seen a psychologist or psychiatrist since she had been arrested a few days earlier.  She couldn’t tell me. I filed a motion to have her examined for competency and am awaiting those results.

Last year, I represented an older man who had been in prison for most of the past twenty five years.  “Frank”, as we can call him, told me that he had spent a lot of time in isolation because of behavior issues. Unlike Jasmine, he could communicate with me but he had a long history of mental health issues.  He told me was just better off in custody than on the streets.  Frank was able to get some level of care in custody that he could not on the outside.  He was happier in custody, he told me.  He received his medication in custody, he said.

In 2015, I represented a young man who had been in prison several times and was charged with a new felony.  “Steven” also had been in trouble for a multitude of minor offenses, such as trespassing, possession of marijuana, and driving with an invalid license.  He was accused of threatening an officer, which I argued took place during a mental health episode.  Luckily, this incident was recorded on video and his case was eventually dismissed.  But, during the several months his case was pending, Steven continued to have mental health issues.  I asked for him to be examined, and he was- twice.  Both times he was found to be competent despite having several serious diagnoses and taking heavy duty medication.

During that same period of time, I represented a man charged with violating his probation. “Ricky” was very young.  He could have been the poster child for societal issues.  His father was in prison, his mother was in prison, his grandmother who raised him was dead and his only living relative was an uncle who was, at best,  marginally interested in providing for Ricky.  He dropped out of high school, started doing drugs and was headed nowhere, fast.  Ricky also exhibited some very strange behavior.  The judge in that court tried to work with him and sent him to several different programs in lieu of prison.  Each time, he violated the rules and regulations of the programs.  The judge even provided money so that I could bring in a psychiatrist to evaluate him.  Eventually, after more than eighteen months of trying to keep him out of prison, Ricky’s good fortune ran out.  He was accused of assaulting several people in custody and his probation was revoked.

So, what’s the point?  First, the Harris County Jail is one of the biggest mental health facilities in the country.  There are more uninsured people in Texas than anywhere else, and far too often, the only option available to people with mental health issues is jail.  Combine that with a general lack of funding, and options for many people evaporate quickly.

There are some diversion programs available in Harris County, including the Mental Health Court but typically, people require a specific, “qualifying diagnosis” to gain admission into this court, and certain types of offenses are bars to admission.  Some people, like Ricky, do not have a “qualifying diagnosis” but still clearly need services.  There are programs in the jail to help people, but far too often, it’s incredibly difficult or impossible for uninsured people, or homeless people, or people on the fringes of society, to keep appointments with social workers or doctors, or refill prescriptions, or go to probation meetings.

So what’s the solution?  More programs?  More funding?  More doctors and mental health professionals?  You tell me.