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Punishing the mentally ill

The nexus between criminality and mental illness has been the subject of discussion for years, with recent estimates indicating that as many as a quarter of the prisoners in state and federal facilities suffer from some mental disorder.  That was reemphasized a couple of weeks ago by the indictment of Timothy Halton for the murder in May of Cleveland Heights Police Officer Jason West; Halton had a history of psychotic behavior, and had recently stopped taking his medication.

What to do about all this has befuddled legislators, courts, and penologists.  The 8th District took a stab at the issue last week, with uneven results.

Back in the summer of 2004, Linda Castrataro was charged with three counts of felonious assault against a police officer, one of vandalism, and one of failure to comply, what used to be called "fleeing and eluding."  She had a history of mental illness -- she would soon be declared incompetent by the probate court -- and the court referred her for evaluations for sanity and competency.  In February, she pled guilty to the failure to comply and one count of felonious assault without the peace officer spec, and a month later the judge put her on probation, with strict conditions, including placement in a group home.  Two months after that, the court referred her for an evaluation for eligibility for civil commitment, but included the wrong statute in the order:  instead of specifying RC 5122.15, the order specified 2945.40, which is the statute for referral for evaluation of sanity and competency.

Nonetheless, a report was prepared, and in June of 2005, the court found her to be a mentally ill person subject to civil commitment, and ordered her hospitalized at the Northcoast Behavioral Facility.  The civil commitment statutes, though, specify that the "least restrictive" housing alternative be used, and a month later the Mental Health Board reported that the least restrictive alternative would not be hospitalization, but supervised housing.  The judge went along, and ordered defendant transferred to Sally Ann Adult Care.  In November, the defendant skipped out, and was later found in a hospital in Atlanta.  She was extradited back to Ohio, and the judge found her to be a probation violator, terminated the community control sanctions, and imposed a three-year prison sentence.

The defendant appealed to the 8th District, urging that in light of the defendant's mental illness, "the sentence was cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment and a violation of appellant's due process rights."  In its decision, the court spends not a word discussing that issue, instead focusing on the fact that the trial court used the wrong statute in its referrals for psychiatric evaluations.  The court also determined that the record contained "no expert medical reports or evaluations," although this apparently because no evaluation was included in the record, not that no evaluation was done:  the docket entry of June 28 specifically indicates that the parties stipulated to the report of a Dr. Radio.  Here's the money quote from the court's opinion:

We are aware of, and sensitive to, the special attention that need be paid mentally ill offenders and the rehabilitative role the criminal justice system should play in this often misunderstood scenario. Appellant deserves the right to a determination, through the proper legal procedures, of whether she would benefit from treatment that can be provided outside the penal system. Accordingly, we instruct the trial court to obtain a psychiatric evaluation of appellant from the Cuyahoga County Mental Health Board pursuant to R.C. 5122.01 et seq., and remand this case for a civil commitment hearing based on the findings of the evaluation.

The problem here isn't only that the trial court's record clearly indicates that it did conduct a civil commitment hearing, and issued a comprehensive order tailored to the findings of that hearing.  What does the appellate court mean when it says that a defendant "deserves the right to a determination... of whether she would benefit from treatment... outside the penal system"?  That you can't send a mentally ill person to prison unless you hold a civil commitment hearing?  That civil commitment, if found applicable, is the preferred solution to prison?  Where does the "rehabilitative role" of the criminal justice system figure into all this, in comparison to the other goals of the system, like deterrence, punishment, and protection of the public?  As the Halton case indicates, the civil commitment system is hardly a failsafe vehicle for achieving that latter goal in particular.

The court's decision is obviously of interest to anyone who's representing a mentally ill defendant.  Exactly what it means isn't at all clear, and it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out over time.

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