A New and Much Needed Perspective in Defending the Mentally Ill
As a criminal defense attorney, I fight hard for my clients. One question I am often asked is, “how can you defend those people.” I always appreciate the question—the truth is my clients are wonderful, law abiding citizens…some are absolutely innocent and never thought they would have ever needed a criminal defense attorney. Others, make a mistake and I fight hard to make sure they can go back to a normal life and not be defined nor adversely effected by an often non forgiving judicial system.
In my practice, I take pride in defending minors under the age of 18, and the mentally ill. For todays’ post, I will concentrate on one case in particular which highlights why it is imperative the system move away from sending those with mental illness to jails or state prison. It takes compassion, understanding and passion to make District Attorneys’ and the Courts’ realize why compassion and non-commitment is necessary for most cases involving the mentally ill.
“A jail environment simply is not conducive to the treatment of a mental illness,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey told the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors on Aug. 4, 2015.
She continued, “We believe that by providing appropriate mental health services, substance abuse treatment, job training as well as permanent supportive housing when it is needed, the mentally ill are stabilized and less likely to commit future crimes.”
However, as I learned recently, ALL District Attorneys serving LA County must also inject this reasoning when assessing cases. I have worked with some of the best District Attorneys in LA County, who understand the issue and use compassion and understanding–but there are still some who do not and the District Attorney’s Office must direct all offices to use other sources of punishment when dealing with the mentally ill.
My client had a clean history, was college educated and loved by his parents. His family noticed a change in him and tried desperately to get him the appropriate care. As anyone who has loved ones suffering with mental illness knows, finding help is usually a monumental feat.
My client was involved in a felony evading case, thankfully nobody was hurt. No drugs nor alcohol involved, and the officers were gentle with my client. I realized my client was suffering from an undiagnosed mystery. I got him a psychological evaluation and with my urging weekly therapy. The positive effects of the weekly therapy was transformative—he was being treated in such a consistent manner, with someone trained to help him. All the doctors agreed prison and/or county jail would NOT help, in fact warned that any commitment would set my client back and he would likely never recover from the stress.
When trying to discuss the matter with a higher level district attorney, she called my client, “crazy” and would not come down from a state prison offer.
If not for an open heart and compassion from the Judge in my case, my client would have suffered from the stress and anxiety of trial. With a lot of work and commitment from my client, the Judge gave my client no confinement—realizing that confinement was no place for my client.
We must as a society change our thinking when treating the mentally ill—mental illness is in fact an ILLNESS that necessitates consistent treatment and compassion. It also takes an attorney to recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental breakdown and use compassion, skill and ingenuity in helping their clients through the criminal justice system.
As Ms. Lacey states, “The use of the jail as a mental health ward is inefficient, ineffective and in many cases it is inhumane…”
Amen Ms. Lacey, and now is the time to implement and act on that philosophy.
Ms. Megerditchian is the owner of the Law Office of Silva L. Megerditchian.