Sunday, January 09, 2011

Jared Loughner, Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

I just read an article in the Arizona Daily Star about Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter.

The article indicates that Loughner completed "diversion programs" after minor criminal charges. This is just another example of how our so-called criminal justice system fails to deal with mental health problems.

We have a relevant case pending right now. We applied for the new Judicial Diversion program for drug felonies in New York. The normal approach is that the Court orders an evaluation.

We like to go a step ahead of that, and apparently a step beyond. Before seeking diversion we have our client get a thorough mental health evaluation from a trusted professional. The psychologist we send people to is a respected professor. He does a complete evaluation and provides us with a detailed report, addressing the total mental health picture as well as the specific legal questions we ask him.

In our pending case, the Court did not accept our psychologist's report as sufficient and ordered an evaluation from the court's own staff. I have that evaluation. While I agree with its ultimate conclusion (that our client should be admitted to the diversion program), I find the overall quality of the report disturbing.

The evaluator is a social worker with far less education and training than a psychologist. He filled out a boilerplate questionnaire with very short handwritten answers - rarely full sentences and often one word. There was no discussion, no analysis of our client, his life, the incident that led to his arrest, etc.

Relevant to Jared Loughner, what stands out is that the court evaluation only addressed the substance use/abuse issues and did not address other mental health concerns. Our psychologist identified a number of other DSM-IV diagnostic codes, and the major concern was not substance abuse but rather a severe form of a fairly common mental health problem. According to our psychologist this is the underlying cause of most of our client's other problems (including the recently developed substance abuse, a collapse in school grades and family issues).

Did that happen with Loughner in Tucson? Did the diversion programs ignore other mental health problems and address only substance abuse? I'm not sure if we'll ever know, but I know it happens here.

Mental health problems are one of the biggest causes of crime. We see it a lot in our DWI cases and petit larceny (shoplifting) too. The criminal justice system should pay more attention to overall mental health problems. Let's hope the Jared Loughner story pushes in that direction.
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