As a criminal defense attorney in Orange County, I am sometimes left with the heart-wrenching task of helping the parents of an adult child with a mental illness wind their way through our state justice system; a system that often leaves no room for opportunities to address the underlying basis for the crime—the mental illness—but rather seeks only to punish. A person who suffers from schizophrenia, severe bi-polar disorder, or other serious mental illness is probably not going to be rehabilitated by incarceration. Yet all too often, mentally ill individuals commit crimes for which they are sent to jail or prison only to be released and start the cycle again.
Parents of these individuals are understandably frustrated and often at their wit’s end. Why, they ask me, does the system keep punishing my child for these crimes he or she commits (crimes driven only by his or her mental illness), rather than providing mental health treatment? After their child has been through the revolving door enough times, the parents want to know, why can’t they just “lock him up” in a residential facility? Unless the crimes committed are serious felonies, their mentally ill child will not be “locked up” for long. Unfortunately, incarceration in jail or prison can exacerbate the mental illness.
While recent California legislation, which offers pre-trial diversion to some mentally ill defendants, attempts to address this issue, the problem is wider and deeper than the new pre-trial diversion legislation alone can solve, but it’s a start. Until the recently enacted pre-trial diversion legislation, mentally ill defendants who were not in certain classes (veterans, some drug cases), entered and exited the justice system without the system ever genuinely addressing the underlying reason for their criminal behavior.