Justice Reform Must Include Mental Health Reforms

Recently there has been an increased awareness of Justice Reforms in America. According to the Brookings Institution, it reports that we are spending $80 billion a year on incarceration. However, according to the U.S. government, we spend on average $3.5 trillion on health care annually. I raise the two separate issues to pinpoint a severe flaw that both systems are broken and in disrepair.

To help find a solution, some lawmakers have introduced policy allowing the privatization of prisons systems suggesting a reduction burdening taxpayers. Yet, these private prisons profit $7.4 billion annually. Let that sink in for a minute. If a private prison can turn a profit, then why isn’t our national corrections system rolling in surplus? Trillions of dollars on health care spending or roughly $10K per person and we should be the most mentally and physically fit people in the world? But that is not even an actuality in comparison to other nations with free health care. But it’s more complicated than that – because we choose to make it complicated.

Some could argue that jails and prisons provide health care, mental health assessments, and medication to inmates. While true, it holds two temporary but critical flaws. First, the inmate must volunteer and often establish a co-pay payment while incarcerated leaving many in additional debt when released. Second, once an inmate has been set free, there is no continuation of health services of any kind. While there may be low-cost municipal services to the formerly incarcerated the stigma of finding a job, housing, transportation, food, and reassimilation into a skeptic and often hostile community serves no real purpose or plan for successful outcomes. A practical reason for high recidivism rates is that the mentally ill are the most likely to return to jail or prison because they will have housing, food, reassimilation of structure, and medicine. However, somewhat like the perception of registered sex offenders is viewed as all-encompassing violent criminals. The same could be said in how we label those in the mental health community as criminals when in the judicial system.

The reality is that for justice reforms to deliver a sustainable solution the legal system it must collaborate and establish a strategy. A part of that strategy is to include health care and free easy to access proven mental health programs. A reason our health care system is broken because of the lack of accessibility and wage to pay for preventative health services. That same argument extends towards mental health both post and preventative. When an individual pleads for help, but no resources are readily available then there begins the problem in how we should be addressing it. However, if that same individual commits a crime because the bureaucracy fails to establish relationships with health care providers, then it will always be a win-win for prisons and recidivism.

Nobody will claim that justice reform is an easy task. Ultimately, it will be an expensive endeavor both politically, financially, and with strong emotional discourse. But if we make an attempt to focus on a long term strategy regulated by nonpartisan individuals its success may be achievable and results driven. If American society can experience sizable shifts in capitalism where factories that once monopolized the world were replaced with higher skilled and improved conditions why can’t we create and collaborate a rational plan to reduce incarcerations and a clogged judicial system with health organizations that understand data proven methods that will deliver immediate results? If we can invest in soldiers to train them to be leaders on a battlefield, train college students to create inventions to change the world then we can certainly change the dynamic of our outdated judicial and prison systems by reinvesting in proven and life-saving methodologies with long-term cost savings visible in the horizon.

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Someone Has To Look After These People

It is older generations that leave behind valuable lessons. However, it is a society in general that fails to learn from those lessons until it is too late. My grandmother, if she were still alive, would be 101 in a few days. She worked as a psychiatric nurse for the now-closed Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina for over 33 years. She loved her job because she had compassion and empathy for people. Many of her friends and relatives were concerned for her daily safety working closely with unpredictable seriously ill mental patients. However, she would eloquently put it, “someone has to look after these people.”

To me, that statement alone is paramount to many of the discussions surrounding criminal justice reform, mental illness, and compassion in society today. Decades ago politicians decided to close nearly all state-managed mental health facilities. Later it was insurance companies that began reducing policy coverages for underlying mental health assessments. Then that trickled down towards expensive medications that those with a mental illness cannot afford or ensure regiments are taken promptly to keep them off the streets. The bottom line is nobody is looking after the mentally ill. Well, at least not in a sense we were once accustomed to. Today, mental health is governed and managed by your local police or law enforcement department. Rather than adequately fund a psychiatric clinic, hospital, or increase our nursing shortages American culture feels that police can best manage the mental illness crisis.

When I read the newspaper and learn about another random school shooting, I quickly identify where such chaos and carnage could have been prevented not with gun control, safer schools, unique alert systems, or police presence. Instead the lack of mental health accessibility, counseling, facilities, and qualified individuals to identify these individuals are restricted by polished police cars, fancy badges, uniforms, guns, and police registries. A simple comparison of a mental health clinic versus a police station looks like night and day in America. Perhaps it is time to spread out that police funding to other departments to help citizens go back towards helping people and those with mental illnesses. Jails and solitary confinement facilities are not a proper way to treat mental illnesses.

Additionally, society must stop second-guessing individuals trying to use mental illness claims as a way to skirt criminal justice. It is time to allow qualified and licensed doctors to make that assessment. If someone is a danger to society, then let a someone with a medical license, doctorate, and a hospital residency instead of an individual with a two-week jailer course and basic first aid/CPR.

Lastly, psychiatric facilities are not institutions where we lock individuals up and throw away the key. They are treatment facilities that utilize plans of action to assimilate people back into society. After all, these are people and human beings too. The stigma of mental illness is typically identified negatively within society. That is because we fail to see or witness first hand the overall successes and rely on poor data or circumstances of particular individuals that enter and exit habitually. Our overall vision of mental health encompasses those where psychological effectiveness is not working rather than the whole. This is where we must halt rhetoric such as throwing away a key because doing so doesn’t provide a treatment plan or an ability to remedy mental health issues. Instead, it is a recipe to pass on the problems to future generations because there was nobody to look after them.

Protect and Serve

Law enforcement careers are perhaps the most difficult to maintain. Many criminal and civil matters require attention and proper procedure. Over the past few years, our nation has witnessed a severe decline in public trust and confidence in typical police situations. Personally, I have respect for the badge but losing faith in how specific police procedures were and are handled. Deep down I am attempting to replenish my soul with support for those that wear the badge to keep my community safe by being an active advocate of my community. But I question if law enforcement, in general, has become too large of an enterprise business to handle the population for which it serves?

Decades ago the Los Angelas Police Department introduced the motto, “Protect and Serve.” That slogan was designed to serve as a mantra to regaining public trust within its community by maintaining a constant relationship with its people. Other law enforcement agencies began to implement the same slogan as a uniformed message that its department too, is accountable to the community. But I have a serious question about the literal belief of “protect and serve?” Isn’t Protect and Serve a universal statement of equality to servicing the community? There are programs to keep kids off the streets funded by many police agencies. But what about plans to prevent felons, first offenders, the homeless, mentally ill, sex offenders, race relations, LGBT, or other programs that make up a community? There are a sprinkling of departments that implement such programs but rarely do law enforcement agencies indeed protect and serve equally. The fact is that police have a business plan to surveil, investigate, create sting operations, traps and sometimes entrapments to snare wrongdoers. Wouldnt it be more cost effective and efficient if that protect and serve motto was put to the test to reconnect with the community and find some answers or redirection methods? Isn’t that what sociology and criminal justice degrees are intended to facilitate?

Perhaps a reason that law enforcement has grown and social worker jobs have declined is because there is a business model in place to keep offender growth high levels. It seems somewhat humorous that when a police chief speaks to a community about how its department has helped reduce crime, there always seems to be a motion for more money and resources for the growing threat to “out of control crime” in the area. It is somewhat like having a sale on an item only to mark it down but suddenly raise the price claiming the thing is about to run out. It is an amusing game that citizens should take a more significant look at.

Let’s face facts, police departments are too big and widely overfunded. Officers cannot be social workers, mental health physicians, community outreach, therapists, cat rescuers, and homeless advocates at the same time. But that is the design Americans have developed and wonder why mental health is a back burner? But law enforcement can be a resource to help facilitate and redirect to those programs. That is where protect and serve can be put to practical use. Instead of harassing sex offenders about homeless situations or where they can live or work one would think that protect and serve mantra would help an individual to assimilate to the community. Instead, police have unintentionally created its own barrier to communities by using rhetoric such as, “if you didn’t commit that crime you wouldn’t be in this situation.” The fact is that citizens help pay the salaries of police officers are sometimes the very ones left behind because nobody is protecting and serving that part of the community. To me, that is one of the reasons there is a low level of confidence with police. An officer substantiates and determines credibility by using a police check rather than trying to connect and find common ground. If police departments want to save some money, replace protect and serve with I only protect and serve if it comes over the radio. At least that is more realistic to today’s cultural standards.

Law enforcement is the first line of duty and protection of a community. Decades of growth and planning have increased agency funding taking away from social workers, qualified therapists, and dedicated physicians. Perhaps its time to trim police budgets and put that money into programs that help transition a community in need. Funding social worker agencies can and will help reduce recidivism rates. There should never be a fear of a badge to help another human being. Removing that badge and replacing with a listening person without an agenda that could lead to criminal charges is an excellent first step and reducing our enormous prison and probation population.  Maybe now is the time to reassess protect and serve by allowing those with better qualifications to do their jobs rather than police.

A Wonderful Friend That Happens to Have Aspergers ​

I have a wonderful friend that I am proud to say is different than any other friend. He is the most honest person I know and isn’t afraid to give his unscripted opinion when asked. Sometimes when he is nervous, he will wring his hands in a motion similar to hand washing. There are some that can tell he is a bit different than most because of his vocalization delivery. His attention to detail is nearly to perfection which I admire. However, there are occasions when planned events can quickly deteriorate because something has changed or is no longer readily available. My friend has Aspergers, and to me, he is undeniably one of the best, and most honest friend anyone can have.

 

I never made an attempt to pick up and read a book about Autism or other spectrum-related issues. I think my reasoning for this is because becoming immersed in friendships or relationships sometimes cannot be found in pages. Instead, the beginning stages are listening and picking up on visual and verbal cues. If I ask, “what is wrong,” I will most certainly receive a critical and authentic response. That response shouldn’t be interpreted as my fault or suddenly changing my ways to accommodate another. Instead, it is a learning process, and once he understands my traits, habits, language, and cues, then it is assimilated as only identifiable to me. To me, that is indeed a special gift to have and receive. To have another accommodate to your habits is perhaps the best gift anyone can get.

 

A few nights ago my friend was pulled by police for “acting suspicious” while driving. I received a cell phone call in the middle of the night on his speakerphone. He was in a panic because of the flashing strobe lights and spotlight directed at his car causing vision inabilities. I tried to keep him calm as I could hear the officer in the background that kept interrupting his replies. The one thing I could overhear by cell phone was the officer saying, “you gave turn signals at every intersection and was driving under the posted speed limit.  Have you been drinking?”  That is when I heard the worst reply, “yes. I had soda at a friends house.”  The officers’ tone changed and sounded unamused followed immediately with, “step out of the car.” This is when I could no longer hear anything because he was experiencing a field sobriety test for possible driving while impaired. I felt so powerless because I knew he was honest, but the officer was using an opportunity to seek another agenda without probing to understand autism spectrums or other underlying issues.

 

Later I began to investigate how law enforcement could be better educated with regards to autism or other mental health issues. I learned that some states allow identifiers on driver license such as medical conditions to include autism spectrums. I can see the benefit of implementing a such as program, but I have some reservations. What if that volunteered information becomes a weapon for further discrimination, including employment, housing, and medical care? Or better yet, what if the police or first responders disregard the information citing other policies. Arent we becoming a bit more “registry minded” thinking that alone will solve our problems? Another issue is that registries and volunteered information don’t educate the public or police. Sometimes it creates additional stigmas that everyone listed has mental health issues and shouldn’t be driving or allowed a license. That is the perception I gathered while doing some investigating.

 

 

As for his police encounter, he ended up being surrounded by other officers to witness a field sobriety test. He was exceptionally nervous because the officers created a crowd feeling around him. The lights, strobes, and random loud police radios blaring from vehicle speakers jolted his every move. His experience, according to his own words, “was traumatic and overwhelming”. His hands would wring in a motion of cleansing as if he was reliving the experience all over again.  Today he doesn’t want to drive because he relives the wording etched in his memory,  “I followed the law and was told that I was driving too well.” That was all I needed to hear and understand how others seize opportunities to intimidate others with the power of a badge – even when there are no conditions to warrant such a stop. He was eventually let go, but the fear and heart elevations raised red flags because his eye pupils were dilated from being in fear – which officers wanted to arrest because of suspicion of drug use. During a search of the car for drugs, officers disconnected his cell phone, which was a reason I couldn’t hear anything further.

 

Upon reflection of that particular situation, I could almost feel the helplessness he felt combined with the anxieties and overstimulated effects of lights, noise, and intimidation. For that one split moment, I could somewhat understand the life of autism spectrums in that particular moment. I don’t claim to be a credible person in the field of mental health. However, it alerts me towards better advocacy that sometimes those of power take for granted to exploit to gain control. Such abuse of circumstances frustrates and annoy me. It makes me wonder how many others with PTSD, autism spectrums, depression, or other mental health issues are being criminally charged or erroneously imprisoned because of “convenience” for those investigating? I suspect a study will determine that America’s prisons are filled with more mental health-related issues than actual criminals. It’s tough for someone with an autism-related issue to look towards the respect of those wearing uniforms and badges as once admired individuals only to have the tables turned against them for being honest by answering constructive yes or no questions.

 

Nevertheless, I still have a wonderful friend, that happens to have Aspergers.