Mental Illness & Criminal Law: Understanding the Problem

October 15, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

It’s hard to over-state the importance the role mental illness plays in criminal law.  There’s little question in my mind it’s far more prevalent people give it credit for.

A recent survey to Texas criminal defense lawyers asked, “What percentage of your clients suffer from some degree of mental illness in your view?” — and the most common answer was between 50% and 75%.

 

What is Mental Illness?

I find many folks – including my clients and their families – struggle with understanding the very concept of having emotional or behavioral problems.

My view is just about everyone wakes up in the morning wanting to be a law abiding citizen.  But many people are driven so far out of their normal range they get in trouble because of things like anxiety, depression, manic states, and on and on.  This is how I define mental illness.

The term “mentally ill” has a much harsher and deeper connotation than what it really means to me.  Many think it only applies to people who hear voices in their heads, talk to themselves, or who must be confined to a straight jacket in a padded room.  In reality, someone going through a really rough patch in their lives can be driven so far by everything going on in their mind – they can often do or say something which hurts another person or gets themselves in a situation they otherwise know is wrong.

Jail

I ask juries what they think of our national mental health system.  They get puzzled – because they can’t really think of what that is.  Then I point out to them the tragic truth — our mental health system is called “jail.”

Jail and mental illness are frequently on a collision course.  We often don’t know someone has cancer until they exhibit physical symptoms.  We often don’t know someone has the flu until they have a fever.  And we often don’t know how much someone is struggling inside until they get into trouble.  It could be assault, theft, drugs, trespassing — the scenarios are endless — but there are very few criminal cases where mental illness doesn’t play a role.

The Enemy of Treatment – the “Tough on Crime” Mindset

Texas is tough on crime.  Many here unfortunately feed into the cops vs. robbers, good guys vs. bad guys dialogue.  Many believe if crime rates are high – we just need to be meaner to people and things will be fine.  Fortunately these voices are fewer and fewer.

Police deal with tons of mental illness on the streets.  Their aim is generally short-term safety for everyone and not necessarily long term treatment.  They also often don’t have the choice but to take someone to jail who has either committed a crime or who poses a danger to others.

I find prosecutors have a tougher time understanding mental illness because they’re somewhat insulated from it.  They talk with the shop-owner who is having a hard time making ends meet but it’s the defense lawyer who deals to the shoplifter describe the sheer degree of anxiety which drove them to do something they knew was wrong as a simple example.

Getting People Help

The million-dollar question is how do we get help to those who need it. That’s an equally difficult problem.  Understanding the problem is the start.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is a Texas Super Lawyer as designated by Thomson Reuters.