Mental Illness and the Law

Photo via Human Rights Watch: Image of Paul Schlosser III, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, being pepper sprayed on June 10, 2012 by a correctional officer at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine.
Photo via Human Rights Watch: Image of Paul Schlosser III, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, being pepper sprayed on June 10, 2012 by a correctional officer at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine.


Many of the important justice issues discussed here –police brutality, wrongful convictions, mistreatment in prison, and mass incarceration – are magnified when the justice system encounters people with mental illness. On every level, our criminal justice system fails the mentally ill. The results are beyond appalling. Let’s consider it step by step.

Police encounters with people with mental illness. With most police officers being trained to shoot first and ask questions later, it is not surprising that encounters between police officers and people with mental illness frequently end with the citizen being shot or violently assaulted. According to The Washington Post’s data for 2015, of the nearly 1,000 people shot and killed in this country by police officers, 25% displayed signs of mental illness. One of the most disturbing examples is the case of John Barry, a schizophrenic man whose family called 911 and requested a medical evaluation for him because he seemed distraught. Mr. Barry had no weapons and was not threatening anyone, he just seemed unwell to his family. Instead of sending medical professionals, Los Angeles police officers responded. They beat Mr. Barry while trying to pull him from his car. When he tried to pull the car away from this assault, the police opened fire. Warning – the three minute bystander video of this incident is very disturbing, but I include it because it’s important to see how police respond to people with mental illness.

Wrongful convictions of people with mental illness. We now know that many people are susceptible to false confessions, and that is far truer of people with mental illness. Loevy & Loevy client Carl Chatman really deserves a blog post of his own, but I mention him here to show how much more likely a person with mental illness is to be wrongfully convicted. Mr. Chatman was a homeless veteran who spent almost 12 years in prison for a crime that never even occurred. An abusive police officer with a long history of violently coercing false confessions made an incoherent Chatman sign a false confession. In theory, confessions are not supposed to be admissible in court if the person giving the confession was not mentally competent. In practice, once a person signs a confession, it is extremely hard to keep that confession out of the trial on the grounds that the suspect was mentally ill. The justice establishment generally bends over backwards to find that the suspect has no mental health issues.

Mistreatment of people with mental illness in prison. Prisons are not equipped to properly deal with mental illness. Inmates with mental illness are more likely to be held in solitary confinement (to isolate them, rather than treat their condition). Disproportionately, they are raped, commit suicide, or hurt themselves. They routinely do not receive the treatment they need. Prison staff frequently uses malicious and abusive force against prisoners with mental illness. A Human Rights Watch report details incidents in which correctional officers dealing with mentally ill inmates used painful chemical sprays, shocked them with powerful electric stun weapons, strapped them for days in restraining chairs or beds, or just beat and abused them out of malice.

Mass incarceration of people with mental illness. The real root of the problem is that our country has criminalized being mentally ill. The National Treatment Advocacy Center finds that the nation’s jails and prisons have replaced hospitals as the primary facility for mentally ill individuals. One study revealed that American prisons and jails have ten times more mentally ill inmates than the state psychiatric hospitals have patients.

Basic humanity requires us to rethink how the criminal justice system treats people with mental illness. It is simply tragic how one sector of our population reveals so many deep injustices in the system.




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