Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Holistic Approach to Offenders with Mental Illness

Here's an op-ed from Judge Nancy Hohengarten that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman ("A way to ensure justice for all", February 5, 2008):

"Traditionally, family members of criminal defendants do not discuss cases with the prosecution, but when the defendant is mentally ill, family input is appropriate.

A family member who understands the nature of a defendant's mental illness, behavior and circumstances is a valuable resource to the criminal justice system. Protection of the community requires that the mentally ill receive treatment to prevent recidivism. A mentally ill defendant who does not receive appropriate treatment will often be re-arrested, thrown back in jail and yet another person will have been a victim. In the misdemeanor courts' mental health docket, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla allows his mental health prosecutor to listen to family members because it leads to better decision-making on criminal cases.

The role of a prosecutor, after all, is to seek justice. On a case-by-case basis, it means that the punishment should be appropriate for the offense and the offender. This, of course, requires the prosecutor to show leadership on community problems — like mentalillness — that can lead to crime.

My experience with family members trying to keep a loved one mentally healthy and out of jail is that they are exhausted, frustrated and heartbroken.

Their experience provides valuable guidance to criminal justice professionals so that the justice system appropriately addresses andmonitors mentally ill defendants.

One longtime Austin business owner whose son had damaged her property asked me to put her son on probation so that he could be ordered to take his medication. He did very well and was discharged early.

Another woman asked me to find treatment for her son because the stress was killing her. Unfortunately, her mentally ill son couldn't stop using cocaine while he waited the two months for residential treatment on probation. Now he's spending a month in jail because the wait for such treatment is shorter when you're locked up.

Family members aren't asking for leniency; rather, they want their loved ones mentally healthy so they won't break the law and end up in jail. Thus their interests coincide with the interests of criminal justice.

Prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys need to listen to these families. It is our responsibility to provide protection for thecommunity and fairness and justice for all."

Hohengarten presides over Travis County Court at Law 5. She is a member of the Mayor's Mental Health Task Force Monitoring Committeeand the Austin Travis County Mental Health Jail Diversion Committee.

Read the editorial online.

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