In 2013 public defenders across the country sounded the warning alarm when the federal sequester forced many offices to slash budgets and take on fewer cases.  Many have yet to recover and offices are still dealing with not enough lawyers, few resources, and not nearly enough time to help a dearth of clients. With indigent defenders stretched beyond the limits, one particular demographic finds itself particularly vulnerable: the mentally ill.

An important new article in The Columbian highlights that by and large, public defense attorneys simply aren’t able to provide these clients with the attention and care they deserve. The mentally ill may present a whole host of additional challenges to public defenders that the untrained are simply unable to deal with.

Attorneys point out that such information and training are not part of the law school curriculum, and that once they leave school, they’re not provided with any additional or specialized training for working with the mentally ill (some exceptions exist in private law firms). Without this training, they may be unable to recognize the symptoms of mental illness, let alone how best to serve clients suffering from them.

That public defenders may be inexperienced with these particular challenges is a serious contributor to the criminalization of mental illness that seems to be nearing epidemic proportions in the United States. Prisoners with mental health issues have a tendency to cycle in and out of the system repeatedly, and their conditions are most often aggravated by prison conditions (with frequently deadly outcomes ).

An increasing number of jurisdictions are now establishing mental health courts, designed to help divert those individuals with mental health issues into more appropriate venues.  Other counties are funding education programs for frontline workers in the justice system, including public defenders, prosecutors, and judges.

We look forward to seeing how these initiatives develop and hope that governments will recognize the importance of these programs, and provide adequate funding for additional jurisdictions to follow suit. Because for so many who are incarcerated and struggling with mental health, this is a life and death situation.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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