Friday, October 30, 2009

Makes You Want To Cry

Where do you begin to count the tears?

Here's the scene, set by Matt at The Kaiser Blog:
A woman who looked to be in her late twenties was the defendant in a criminal case and she had brought her daughter to court with her. I would bet her daughter was about four.

She didn’t have anyone with her to watch her daughter, so she brought her up to counsel table for her hearing. When she got to counsel’s table, the judge asked her where her lawyer was. She said she didn’t have one. As it turned out, she had already plead guilty to felony theft. She was coming back for her sentencing hearing.

The judge asked her why she didn’t have a lawyer. From looking at the docket for her case and his notes, he told her that he could see that they had continued the trial date twice for her. Each time the judge inquired about her eligibility for a public defender, and concluded that she was eligible. Each time he told her to go to the public defender’s office. He also told her to go get a public defender after her plea hearing.

The judge was clearly frustrated. The woman rambled a little bit about how she didn’t commit the crime (!), then told the judge that she didn’t know, but she thought she might be depressed, and that she knew she was supposed to go to the public defender but she just couldn’t make herself do it.

Matt takes this as the starting point for a valuable discussion of depression and mental illness among our clients and the work we must all do to try and break through it. We don't do that because we are psychologists or social workers or personal counselors who can help them with their mental illness. As Scott Greenfield explained the other day, we're not and we can't. We do what we can because if we can't get them to focus we can't do our jobs, can't help them with what we are competent to do.

It's a real and serious problem, since many of our clients are hurting psychologically, whether from real and serious mental illness or from short-term difficulties simply dealing with the reality of their situation.

Put yourself in the position of a criminal defendant for a moment. Now let's consider your mental state. You're depressed? You should be. You have feelings that you're being persecuted, that someone's out to get you? Good for you. Someone is. You're fearful about the future and have trouble making plans? Well, duh.

And that's the healthy client. Many of those we represent are not. They need meds and don't get them or don't take them or they're not getting the right ones in the right doses. Or meds won't do it. They are, often, criminals because of their mental health problems. And the best treatment they get is to be placed in a concrete room with a metal matress and bars on the door. Then they get out and we wonder why they recidivate.

But you know, as terrible as all that is, it isn't the part that breaks your heart. That part's the little girl, standing up in court with her mother the defendant. Because where else is she to be? She hasn't been abandoned yet, which is no small thing. But she's lost.

How must she feel? How can she possibly feel? Is she scared? Lost? Hopeless? Clinging to her mother who might, just might, be ripped away from her and led off in handcuffs? And there's the judge who asks where the woman's lawyer is.

I'm sorry, it's a fair question, but it's the wrong question to begin. The right question is something like, "Who is there to care for your child?" or "Why is that child here with you today?"

We too often forget the unheard victims of the criminal justice system, the ones nobody takes up for, the ones who don't get support from those "victim advocates," the ones who don't have legislation named after them and don't have special statutory rights. You know the ones: the families of the accused. And none less heard and more damaged than the children.

They're damaged by what the parents did, sure. But then the family is ripped apart by a system that thinks punishing mom is the way to . . . . Well, I'm not sure what we seem to think it's the way to. It's sure as hell not the way to bring up baby.

There are, of course, unfit parents. But the criminal justice system isn't competent to decide those questions, and doesn't offer any real alternative.

Matt reports that a lawyer who happened to be in the courtroom took it upon herself to offer to consult with the defendant. He didn't tell us what happened next. Maybe he didn't know. The odds are it wasn't good and wasn't enough.

When the system relies on good samaritans, the system doesn't work. And the loss? What fails for that defendant fails for all of us.

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