Mental Health Advocacy in the Court System>/h3>
Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 37
A man with a mental illness has been yelling and causing a disturbance in a public place. Out of fear, someone calls the police, who arrive at this street in a usually quiet neighbourhood. The man is frightened, agitated and reacting negatively to people in uniform because of previous trauma and fixed delusions. The police are uncertain what to do in this situation: they could either take him to the local hospital and have a long wait in the emergency department, or they could arrest him and take him to the police station.
The man is arrested and taken to jail. The jail cells are cold, loud and confined. It’s midnight, and the man with mental health issues is being held in custody to await a bail hearing the following morning. Noises and voices echo in the halls and adjacent cells; bright lights accentuate the harshness of the stark environment. The man has been fingerprinted, has had his photo taken and is sitting in a single cell under observation because of his unusual and difficult behaviour. He is wearing a white paper suit, and his belongings have been taken from him.
This is a scenario for many clients who are introduced to the services of the Motivation, Power and Achievement Society (MPA) court program. As advocates at the Vancouver Provincial Courthouse, we work as liaisons between our clients and the various links in the criminal justice system. Even for a person who is not suffering from a mental illness, the criminal justice system is intimidating, confusing and overwhelming at the best of time.
A court worker will visit the person with mental illness and identify what issues need to be addressed. Do they have a lawyer? Do they have legal aid coverage? Do they receive treatment or care in the community? Do they know where they are? Do they have a home? Do they have a family?
MPA court workers assist in making appropriate arrangements to get an individual oriented within the court system and then supported in the community if released. If they have never been charged before, we will explain the court process to them. If they need counsel, we will help to organize the assistance of an experienced, knowledgeable and compassionate lawyer. If housing is required, we will try to secure shelter so that the courts will be more likely to release a person on bail, rather than keeping them incarcerated (since having shelter is usually a requirement of attaining bail).
It is our job to make the court system become more manageable in the minds of people who may be anxious and frightened or experiencing psychiatric symptoms—to make the process as easy as possible for our clients, in an effort to maintain a sensitive and accessible service for consumers.
In the event that a person is so acutely ill that they are unable to understand court proceedings, MPA court workers will assist in arranging other procedural options, such as forensic assessments, to enable the courts to make appropriate release decisions. These assessments also help to engage clients with the mental health system, and to receive the treatment and care necessary to stabilize them in the community. This step is also very helpful in reducing the likelihood that a person will reoffend.
The MPA Society is a non-profit organization that advocates for persons with mental illness. Our court services program has been in existence for more than 20 years. There are three court workers on staff who diligently assist the courts in making decisions on behalf of our clients around bail, probation and, sometimes, sentencing conditions. To complement the program, three other staff members provide outreach services. They help consumers make court appearances, bail and probation appointments, and doctor appointments, and also help clients to access housing and financial services.
Education is another component of our service. On a daily basis, the court workers find they must provide information to various people in the courthouse and in the community. Often, this information is related to mental illness and the issues our clients are dealing with as a result of their situations. We also conduct presentations to organizations about what we do as advocates for mentally ill people in the criminal justice system.
It is vital that we reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and, wherever possible, advocate for those who need help in having their voices heard.
About the Author
Liz is Supervisor for the Motivation, Power and Achievement Society court services project. She and her team advocate for consumers who are charged with criminal offences filed at the Provincial Courthouse in Vancouver