Monday, January 16, 2012

'Neither punished nor treated, just jailed'

At the Dallas News, columnist Steve Blow had a piece yesterday ("Mental illness leaves man trapped in county jail," Jan. 15) about a defendant named Reveau Skinner suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who was declared incompetent to stand trial but then waited in jail more than a year (so far) for a state hospital bed to open up to provide competecy restoration services (i.e., treatment to stabilize and medicate the iillness so the defendant is competent to participate in his own defense). Notes Blow:
If it were his heart or a hip that malfunctioned, he would undoubtedly be in treatment. But since it’s his brain that has the problem, he sits in jail month after month.

He should have been released a long time ago. But now he’s caught in the abyss between our criminal justice and mental health systems, neither being punished nor treated. Just jailed.
Earlier, a plea bargain was struck that would have released Skinner on probation - the victim in the domestic violence that sent him there incident had no desire to press charges. But after the court declared him incompetent, he couldn't even enter a guilty plea until after he'd been restored to competency, and that part of the process has stalled because of the shortage of state hospital beds.

The judge apologized to Skinner, but with that apology and a dollar he perhaps could get a soda at the commissary, but  not much else. IMO, after such a long time the judge should have flat-out ordered the state hospital to take this fellow, as judges in other jurisdictions have begun to do.

The Legislature this year gave with one hand on competency restoration while taking away with the other. They passed a statute for misdemeanor  defendants requiring their release if they don't get timely competency restoration, but for those charged with a felony, as in this case, there's no such safety valve. Meanwhile, they actually cut funding for state hospitals and mental health treatment, heightening scarcity and increasing time on waiting lists for competency restoration treatments.

This situation has lingered as long as your correspondent has been paying attention to county jail issues, and it's an area where underinvestment by the state heaps big problems and costs onto counties. To make matters worse, the only legislator who last session made the issue a real priority - Rep. Will Hartnett - is retiring from the Lege and will not return. Texas desperately needs somebody to take leadership on this question, but a betting man would likely wager the malaise and inaction will continue indefinitely, particularly with large budget shortfalls projected again in 2013. The situation is difficult for local officials but impossibly frustrating and cruel for the defendants themselves.

Indeed, in some ways the system seems more incompetent than the defendants. We understand that mental illness caused Skinner's incompetence, but what explains the incompetence of legislators, the governor, and the Department of State Health Services (which operates state mental hospitals) to cease this recurring nightmare? At least Mr. Skinner has a good excuse.

See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Study: Texas Ranks Last in Mental Health Spending

Texas ranks last in mental health spending. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that there is a relation to this fact and the amount of money being spent on jails and prisons. You're going to pay, one way or the other.

Here's some other interesting facts:

•Rank of Texas’s spending on indigent criminal defense among 50 states: 50

•Rank of Texas in number of juveniles incarcerated in adult prisons: 1

•Rank of Texas in number of prisoners held in supermax control units: 1

•Rank of Texas in number of inmates shipped to private for-profit prisons: 1

•Rank of Texas in number of inmates sexually assaulted in prison (in both absolute and per capita terms): 1

•Rank of Texas in executions since 1977: 1

•Rank of Texas in executing juveniles and mentally retarded inmates before recent Supreme Court prohibitions: 1

•Number of state prisons built in Texas between 1980 and 2004: 94

•Total number of university campuses in Texas: 94

Anonymous said...

Upon reading your comments about Rep. Will Hartnett I wondered something. Has there been a study on bold, humane, and unpopular common sense legislation being proposed by legislators in their final terms vs those looking for reelection?

Anonymous said...

No big secret here. This is where most of our mentally ill end up. It's all a result of the "feel good" laws initiated in the 70's that proclaimed that mentally ill people were just like the rest of us, and could not be institutionalized against their will without a great deal of effort.

Yep, we are one big happy family.

Lee said...

How is it then that the defendant is labeled incompetent?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Lee, they're assessed by a psychologist and a judge makes the determination.

12:08, there's some correlation there, for sure. But also it's the case that it frequently takes many years for newbies to understand the system well enough to even grasp the problems, much less possible solutions. So often more thoughtful solutions aren't proposed until relatively late in a legislative career, not for any cynical reason but just because you can't propose solutions to problems you don't understand or even know exist. That's one of the reasons I oppose term limits. I don't want people ousted just as they begin to understand how things work.

Lee said...


My point was comparing the failures and retardation of the system and the defendant. The system seems to function less than the defendant. Is it that the more money we throw into the criminal justice system the more retarded it becomes? Logic would label the system as more retarded than the defendant.

Tedbyrd said...

Welcome to Texas!!!!! do you wonder why so many people are moving here? LOW TAXES!!! where does the money come from to treat the mentally ill? TAXES!!! to treat drug addicts? TAXES!!! the mentally ill were thought, for years, to be demon possessed- they are, for the most part, sick, just like someone with cancer or diabetes-or drug addiction-but they have a whisper, not even a real voice, in how resources are allocated-should we stop treating cancer patients because their behavior contributed, in part, to their disease? I quit smoking to avoid the disease- not everyone is as fortunate as me-jails are simply warehouses for the detritus of society-and do little, if anything, to protect society except to keep offenders locked up for some period- what happens when the offenders are turned loose? lets keep spending millions for jet fighters for war and keep ignoring the needs of the helpless among us- thats what voters seem to want, right? Anonymous's statistics are, quite frankly, shameful- we have a governor gallavanting around the country bragging about how good things are here- when is someone going to investigate the dark underside of this state that I love so much? how about a state incmoe tax to finanace indigent defense, drug treatment and mental illness treatment? apostasy? maybe- but I, for one, would pay it if assured thats where the funds went

RSO wife said...

I, too, would be willing to pay income tax if I were assured of where the money was really being spent. However, I still can't get anybody to tell me where the Texas Lottery money goes that was supposed to be spent on education, and since we have NO money for education, you can bet your sweet bippy it AIN'T going there.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

Scott the only thing I have ever found to disagree with you on is term limits, I see your point but....I have the same reason as you for wanting term limits, as soon as they figure out whats going in they head for the money and become part of the problem. As for the issue at hand our Lege has done our State and our mentally challenged a complete disservice as well as the police, prosecutors, and Judges in just about any county you can mention.

Phillip Baker said...

The biggest, by far, mental health center in Central Texas is Travis County Jail (which does a very good job with the mentally ill, btw- albeit pointless, since TDCJ will most likely declare the guy has no mental illness and stop meds to keep costs down). Same is true about drug treatment- the jail.

I've been involved with a couple of "wounded warriors" whose PTSD went undiagnosed (or just denied) and untreated, then spiraled out of control till they were charged with something. Amazing how quickly our "honored troops", our "heroes" become forgotten when they come back home. No mercy, no consideration for what they have faced and done FOR US , just "lock 'em up".

A very good source: Diana Claitor, Texas Jail Project. Please check it out.