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December 1, 2006
by Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief
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I am appalled by the conditions too many people with mental illness suffer under when involved with the justice system. The New York Times reported on one case last month. Timothy Joe Souders, who had a history of severe mental illness and was described as “floridly psychotic” by a social worker, died at the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility in Jackson in August. For four days Souders lied naked in his own urine, shackled to a concrete slab in an isolated cell that reached temperatures above 100 degrees. Sounds Abu Ghraib-like to me. In fact, a federal judge said the conditions leading to his death constituted torture.

Addressing officials involved in the case, Richard A. Enslen, a senior federal district judge, wrote, “You are not coat racks who collect government paychecks while your work is taken to the sexton for burial,” adding, “If a patient does not receive necessary medical or psychological services, including medicines and specialty care, it is not his problem, it is your problem.” The judge consequently ordered a ban on punitive restraints in three Jackson prisons.

Judges in Florida similarly are dissatisfied with how the justice system treats people with mental illness. The New York Times ran a front-page story on people with mental illness incompetent to stand trial remaining in county jails because of a shortage of state psychiatric beds. Some of these inmates have died while imprisoned, and others have attempted suicide or mutilated themselves (one inmate with schizophrenia in the Pinellas County Jail gouged out his eye after waiting for weeks for a hospital bed, according to the man's lawyer). Some judges argue that the state is not doing enough to address the problem and is even ignoring court orders to do so, and judges have responded by threatening to fine the state and even jail the secretary of the Department of Children and Families for contempt of court.

“The judiciary is getting better educated and a lot more frustrated about the problem,” said Judge Steven Leifman of the Miami-Dade County Court in the Times. “We've all just said, ‘Enough is enough; this isn't working.’”

Another judge taking action is Leroy R. Hassell, Sr., chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. He has launched a commission to review the state's mental health laws and to recommend reform legislation. His effort has been criticized by a Republican state senator, who argues that courts should not be involved in policy making. I instead agree with a Washington Post editorial: “Judges see firsthand the impact of untreated people on the criminal justice system and the inadequacy of laws that deal with the problem. Their advice to lawmakers is invaluable.”

State and federal legislators have not done enough to ensure that people with mental illness receive the care and humane conditions they deserve while involved in the justice system. Perhaps judges are more sensitive to this issue because, unlike policy makers, many jurists actually see people with mental illness every day. I am sensitive to concerns about judges legislating from the bench, but there are certainly situations when judges must take a more active role to ensure that justice and human rights are upheld. This is one of them.

Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief