‘We are Not Our Illness:’ People with Mental Illnesses, Judges Discuss Courtroom Decision-Making

May 8, 2017

Kicking off #MentalHealthMonth on May 1, judges and psychiatrists from across the country gathered with people with mental illnesses and their family members to discuss the place where their lives often intersect—the criminal justice system.

“I see more people with mental illnesses in my courtroom in a day than a doctor might see in a month,” said Judge Steven Leifman of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. “That’s a sad commentary on the system.”

The convening was hosted by the Judges’ and Psychiatrists’ Leadership Initiative, a project of a the CSG Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation that supports efforts by judges and psychiatrists to improve judicial, community, and systemic responses to people with behavioral health needs in the justice system. Throughout the daylong meeting, participants discussed judicial decision making around sentencing people with behavioral health disorders and considering their conditions of release.

Judges shared strategies they employ when people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders appear in their courtrooms, but sought ideas on how to better tap into the behavioral health care resources in their communities. Jayette Lansbury—who serves as the criminal justice chair for New York State’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and whose son has a mental illness and is in a forensic facility—urged the judges to involve peer advocates and family members at every possible juncture.

“Families are often the first first responders,” Lansbury said. “And when one person is arrested, in a way, the whole family is arrested.”

For Paton Blough—who suffers from bipolar disorder and now uses his own experience in the justice system to help him train police officers on de-escalation tactics—something as simple as the language a judge uses when speaking about mental illness could make a big difference in the courtroom.

“We don’t say ‘Are you heart disease?’” he said. “So why do we say ‘Are you bipolar?’ We are not our illness.”

The ideas shared at the convening will inform an upcoming resource guide that will  help judges make informed connections to treatment for people with mental illnesses.

“Hopefully one day the criminal justice system will be the last resort for people with serious mental illness, not the front door,” Leifman said.

Full coverage of nationwide activities this month can be found using the hashtag #MentalHealthMonth. For more news from the CSG Justice Center, visit @CSGJC on social media or subscribe to news alerts.

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