The criminal justice system effectively sentences those with mental illness to life in prison. Penal institutions are not the nation’s largest “protectors” of the mentally ill; yet, jails and prisons are no place for these individuals.
It is common to see those struggling with mental illness to constantly enter the revolving door of county jails. Sometimes, law enforcement picks up mentally ill individuals on petty theft charges when they walk into a convenient store and steal a necessary item for survival. Other times, police arrest them on misdemeanor vandalism, under the influence of a controlled substance, or disturbing the peace charges. Vagrancy related charges as well as indecent exposure misdemeanor charges are also routine. Eventually, the officers become familiar with these members of society and approach them as soon as they spot them on a sidewalk or in an alley combing through trashcans.
The misdemeanor charges for the mentally ill continue to build until these individuals have a sizeable criminal record. Overtime, as the prosecutors and judges realize that certain individuals are repeat offenders, any sympathy for the persons—if there even was any to begin with—goes out the door. As soon as the case-filing deputies at the district attorney’s office observe the numerous misdemeanor convictions on a person’s Records of Arrests and Prosecutions (RAP) sheet, they issue a complaint alleging felony violations. After all, it is not hard to find a basis for felony conduct, especially considering that many crimes are wobblers, meaning that the crimes can constitute either felonies or misdemeanors.
Over time, one felony charge turns into three felony charges. Then four. Then five. Then six. Eventually, that felony charge turns into a felony strike charge, a serious felony offense. For instance, the incoherent ramblings of a schizophrenic on the street corner turn into criminal threat allegations. The twirling of a previously discarded metal rod found in a recycling bin escalates into allegations of assault with a deadly weapon. Petty theft from the local grocery store turns into a robbery when an irrational monologue causes the clerk to be in fear for her life.
A mentally ill individual with a strike on his or her record is a recipe for disaster. It is a recipe for life in prison without obtaining the proper mental health help necessary to overcome the disease. A strike conviction on one’s record means that any subsequent felony charge will carry double the amount of prison time that an individual without a strike on his or her record would face for the identical felony offense. Therefore, the mentally ill will forever have longer prison sentences that span years at a time. At this point, misdemeanor arrests and prosecutions of the mentally ill individual are a distant memory. He or she has been labeled a felon, a criminal, a monster.
Once a strike is on one’s record, that person is marked for life. It is as if that person is wearing a sign that says, “Come arrest me! I am a felon with a strike on my record!” The police and the district attorneys are out to get these individuals. The mentality seems to be that once a serious felony offender, always a serious felony offender; rehabilitation is impossible.
Moreover, thanks to the implementation of the Three Strikes Law, once a mentally ill individual receives his or her third strike conviction, that person faces a harsh reality: the possibility of life in prison. Automatically, the individual is facing twenty-five years to life for crimes—many of which are not near as serious as the charges’ names imply—committed while battling mental demons. It does not matter if that person’s mental disorder is one day in remission. It does not matter if the community member is now taking his or her medications to keep the mental health issues at bay. It does not matter that the person has never had the opportunity to even work with a team of doctors to try to find a remedy for his or her plight. The prison system fails to distinguish between individuals society unfortunately labels as criminals and the mentally ill.
Yet, walk into any county jail and you will see hundreds upon hundreds of individuals suffering from mental inflictions. Stroll through the jail halls and you will see these humans discarded like trash inside of cold, sterile concrete cells where they are alone with their inner demons. The solitude and the emptiness cause the schizophrenic voices to reappear, to dominate. The mental illnesses surge to the forefront. The mental illnesses erupt like a volcano back in full force.
And this is how the cycle carries on time and again. That explosion of the disease does not subside while these individuals are behind bars. The mental affliction continues accruing more and more strength. It turns into violence. It turns into hopelessness. And in that state of despair, these individuals are released back out onto the streets. Their jail sentences are over. The jail guards wipe clean their hands as they wearily watch the individuals saunter into the night with no place to go, no place to call home. In no time, these persons will be right back where they left. Inside that bleak cells battling their mental diseases.
For some reason, society is okay with this harsh reality. For some reason, society looks the other way. However, what if you were diagnosed with cancer? What if you were diagnosed with heart disease? What if you were diagnosed with meningitis? Would you be satisfied with the government throwing you behind bars where you were no longer a nuisance to your loved ones? Of course not. You would be in an uproar. You would protest against the inhumane conditions and the lack of health care. You would have family members flock to the government headquarters and advocate on your behalf. You are fortunate. You are lucky. The mentally ill members of society who are in and out of jails and prisons are not so fortuitous. They need that same love and support. They need you to care.