This article from Saturday’s Houston Chronicle just came to my attention (thanks to Houston criminal-defense lawyer Steve Halpert for the assist). In a nutshell, it’s an opinion piece (thinly disguised as news) about how the Harris County DA’s office should be working harder to put homeless, drug-addicted, mentally ill veterans in jail for longer terms.
Here’s the response I emailed to Peggy O’Hare, the author of the article:
You related an anecdote and gave your opinion but totally missed the story. Mr. Lee’s case does expose a flaw in the system, but the flaw is not that we are too easy on cocaine-addicted, mentally-ill, homeless veterans.
There are countless people who come through the system time after time after time with — and at least in part because of — mental health problems. With 1400 inmates being treated with psychiatric medications, the Harris County Jail is the largest psychiatric hospital in the state. You pooh-pooh Mr. Lee’s psych history. Bear in mind, though, that very few of these 1400 HCJ inmates receiving meds are either (legally) insane or (legally) incompetent. You might say that their “mental health has never been used as a serious defense,” but they are, by any definition, mentally ill.
The 1400 receiving psych meds are not the end of the story, either. There can be no doubt that there are also people in the jail who are mentally ill but undiagnosed and untreated.
Jail officials have surprised me with their compassion; they are doing their best to help the mentally ill within the system. But this state does not dedicate enough resources to helping the mentally ill. The jail can’t do anything with mentally-ill inmates but hold them or release them to the street; if they are released to the street, they will wind up right back in the jail, or dead. If we send them to jail for two years, we’re warehousing them; mentally ill inmates are much more expensive to house than inmates who are not mentally ill, and when they are finally released, they’re going to be back in jail in short order.
I have had clients like Mr. Lee — homeless veterans with drug addictions (cocaine addiction isn’t a “weakness”, as you glibly describe it, but a disease) and mental health histories. I have seen them commit crime after crime after crime, until it appears to me that they are trying to get caught and sent back to jail. In fact, some of these crimes happen on the coldest nights of the year. Upstanding citizens say, “it sounds like they don’t learn a lesson.” No, they don’t. They’re mentally ill and drug addicted.
To the public, the easy solution would appear to be to warehouse them in jail or prison. Mr. Lee might have, if the State wanted to spend tens of thousands of dollars to take him to trial, been sentenced to ten years in prison (no lawyer worth a damn would plead him to that on the facts you’ve described). On a ten-year TDC sentence, he might serve ten years, or he might serve as little as 14 months. But treatment in TDCJ-ID is no better than in the Harris County jail and, without mental health and drug treatment, he would likely be back in jail shortly after getting out.
The flaw is not that we don’t put Mr. Lee in jail longer; it is that we don’t treat his illnesses to try to prevent his return there.