Monday, April 25, 2005

Courting Success

When a 20-year-old bipolar guy gets sent to court in Alabama, he might not face the same consequences as his non-bipolar counterpart. This is due to the actions of what some may call "activist judges" who think that those clearly suffering from a mental illness that impairs their ability to make reasonable judgements should be put on a regimen of therapy, medication and supervision.

Apparently, the system is working pretty well, as even the ill can see that they are getting a good deal. The program is only designed for non-violent, non-sex offenders. And, the consequence of noncompliance is jail time.

While I like the idea of a separate system of punishment for those who suffer from mental illness, the practice makes me somewhat uncomfortable. If I break into a store, why should I get a "softer" sentence than Brendan if he committed the same action? I suppose courts exist to discern the significant differences behind people's motivation for crime and bad behavior. It is different to break into someone's house because you want to steal their stuff and to break into someone's house because you think it's your own and you lost your keys.

Of course, that doesn't mean that mentally ill folk aren't capable of doing extremely dumb things. But their culpability is fuzzy; they are culpable, no doubt, but are they as culpable as the next guy?

This reminds me of a case in San Diego where the cops were involved in a high speed chase that resulted in the death of three innocent travelers who just happened to be from the Phoenix area. It was a big news story because the boy in the car lost his father and his fiance and his mother was critically injured; the family didn't have enough money to bring the bodies back from San Diego and there was a big fundraising effort that ended when some businessman anonymously donated all of the money necessary.

Anyway, this was a truly tragic story, but what was more tragic is that the woman running from police was not running drugs or trying to hide some horrible felony. She was psychotic and convinced that the police were going to kill her. This particular case was made all the more upsetting because the woman had been unsuccessfully appealing to the state to maintain her medical aid.

Regardless, does this clearly ill individual deserve the same punishment as some smarmy drug runner motivated by greed and street status? I certainly don't think so, and I think that's exactly why we have courts to suss out the underlying factors in crime.

And yet, I don't think there are many criminals who wouldn't benefit from therapy and intense supervision without the jail time.

Ugh. Sometimes I'm very happy that I don't make public policy.