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Please join our Hope Xchange team in welcoming a new guest blogger, Stacy Silverwood, who graciously offers our tribe a hardy hand shake, a kiss on both cheeks & a warm hug.
Take a field trip to the County Court House and you'll likely find a representation of a woman wearing a blindfold holding a set of scales. Blind justice is symbolic of weighing only the evidence when deciding the verdict, ignoring the identities of the parties involved. It shouldn't matter if they are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, young or old, resident or immigrant, or friend or stranger. Only the evidence is of importance in determining who will prevail in a court of law. This is our method of keeping our society safe and secure, of keeping those who would do harm separated from those who will not.
What goes into these plates held in balance by our blindfolded woman will determine not only guilt or innocence but the action taken afterwards. Or at least it should. Our justice system has been designed and is in a constant state of evolution to protect the rights of all, whether guilty or innocent. Even the guilty are supposed to be treated fairly and humanely. It is up to all of us, as members of society, to ensure this takes place. When there is a miscarriage of justice or a mistake made in trying a case, we must call attention to it.
There is a term used to describe a case where the evidence is so persuasive that the outcome is easily predictable: "an open and shut case." However, even in a case where the accused has pled guilty to a crime, there is more involved in determining the nature of the sentence to be imposed. There may be mitigating circumstances, something that contributed to the commission of a crime that was beyond the control of the accused.
In reality, our justice system is designed to do more than impose punishment on the guilty. It must also be able to provide for the care and welfare of those in the system who have committed crimes due to coercion or mental or emotional impairment. This can become quite complex and requires a great deal of effort and cooperation of all parties involved.
I recently became aware of the case of a young man in Florida who had been given a 10 year sentence in prison for committing armed robbery. He was in his late teens when he committed the crime and agreed to a plea bargain in hopes of a short sentence in a juvenile facility. The facts that he used a gun in the robbery and was already a convicted felon when he committed the crime likely led to the judge's verdict.
Here's the catch. Since the age of ten, this young man has struggled with and been treated for psychological and emotional disorders related to his bipolar diagnosis. So, the question must be asked, in his case and in any other like it, how much of the responsibility for the crime can be attributed to his mental illness? Should this young man be incarcerated or hospitalized?
In a society where mental illness is stigmatized and effective treatment difficult to find even for those with financial means, the life of a person suffering from mental illness can be unbearably challenging. Some fail to thrive, finding themselves homeless or incarcerated due to their inability to function consistently and predictably within the confines of society. Further, some disorders manifest in a numbing of the portion of the brain which controls inhibitions. Even when a person knows an action is wrong, they may find it impossible to resist taking the action or, they may view an action as deplorable most of the time and, at other times, completely acceptable. Such is the nature of certain types of mental illness.
Even in this day and age, the treatment of mental disorders is a very challenging and an often hit-and-miss undertaking. The course of treatment that successfully manages the condition of one patient often has little or no effect upon another. Unlike medical illness which can often be diagnosed through a series of tests such as blood tests, this is not the case with mental illness. Medication therapy is often a case of trial and error, i.e., take this medication in this dose and let's see what happens. And, at times, the treatment's side effects are worse than the disease itself.
So back to the case of the young man in our story. While we as a society cannot tolerate, under any circumstances, violence or even the threat of violence against the public, we still need to determine through our justice system the appropriate course of action when the person involved has a history of mental illness. Mental illness cannot be used as an excuse for having committed a criminal act but it can certainly be considered a contributing factor.
Does this mean that every person in the justice system who suffers from mental or emotional disorders gets a "Get Out of Jail Free" card? Absolutely not. When our justice system is operating the way it is supposed to it would mean, however, that every person in the system with a history of mental illness would get a "Get Into Treatment for Free" card.
Everyone deserves to be treated humanely. Treatment of the mentally ill is every bit as important as incarceration of the criminal when it comes to defining justice. Those who are a danger to society, for whatever reason, need to be kept at a safe distance. This includes the mentally ill who either resist or fail to respond to treatment.
We are a society of both rights and privileges. As an example, a person born blind has inherited a challenge due to no fault of their own. But who would agree that the privilege of obtaining a drivers license should be extended to them? The public's right to safety and security -- indeed, even the safety of the person born blind -- would trump the privilege of this person's desire to drive an automobile.
The case in Florida is now being brought to appeal for a second look. If you're interested in learning more about Nikko's case, CLICK HERE. We owe it not just to this young man and his family but to all of society to see that justice is done. Whether the District Court of Appeals will decide on incarceration or treatment or a combination of the two will determine whether justice has been done here. We will keep you informed as his case progresses.
For more about about mental illness and our criminal justice system, here are some thought-provoking articles: