Denver Bar Association
March 2012
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The Road Worrier: Trying to Understand a Client’s Mental Health

by Greg Rawlings



hen I was still working for the city and dealing with every street drunk and druggie in Denver, when my Victim’s Advocate Maria and I were going through oversized aerosol cans of disinfectant and gallons of Purell on a regular basis, I came to realize that everyone who goes into criminal law, whichever side of the fence you find yourself, needs an advanced degree in psychology.

One of my best friends actually threw off the shackles of his legal education and career and went to med school: he’s now a psychiatrist outside Washington, D.C., specializing in addiction therapy and treatment. My guess is he gets a lot of lawyers for clients. Another friend flipped the other direction, giving up a career as a psychology professor to go into law (not criminal law, mind you). Any way you look at it, criminal law seems to be a magnet for the mentally ill.

There’s been a good bit of investigation into our society’s decision to fill our prisons and prison hospitals with the mentally ill, rather than deal with the issue head on. It’s a societal problem right up there with incarcerating drug addicts rather than making any real, sustained effort to provide the treatment necessary to give them some semblance of a decent civil life. As a culture, we like to make things illegal and then lock up the poor and the mentally ill people who can’t comply with our fetid swamp of a criminal justice system.

It got so bad that some days I’d keep tabs on how many people I met with in the hell that was Denver’s Courtroom 122C who claimed to be bipolar or ADHD or some combination thereof. Most days it was at least 25 percent—sometimes higher.

I once had a cop warn me away from a glass case on the first floor at 1437 Bannock because he thought the 300-plus pound teenager, who liked to run around his neighborhood buck naked and pay surprise visits to folks inside their homes, might smash me into it. Instead, he started flinging himself at the ground and pounding the marble floor with his fists. He was autistic, according to his parents, who couldn’t understand why his actions provoked their neighbors into calling the police. I had no idea what to do. As far as I know, you can’t send someone to the state mental hospital in Pueblo for violating a municipal ordinance.

And the people I’ve had go there would rather not return. I recently had a sex case client who said that if it appeared that they wanted to send him back to Pueblo, he wanted me to call him the day before, so he could commit suicide. He said it quite matter-of-factly, as if requesting a wake-up call at an airport hotel.

On NPR, on a day just before Christmas, they interviewed an orderly at one of California’s infamous hospitals for the criminally insane. He’d had a chunk of his ear bitten off by a violent madman. Of course, the inmate was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to, you guessed, another state hospital for the criminally insane. These places are modern Bedlams, crowded and crazy and mean.

I grew up down the street from a hospital in Portsmouth, Ohio, that housed the less criminally insane. We’d sneak in and buy smokes from the cigarette machine. The inmates liked to line the outfield fence of our Little League field, which was directly behind the hospital. They’d clap at odd times and chase home run balls. They’d swing on the huge metal swings and share cigarettes. It didn’t seem scary then. I could not for the life of me imagine any of these seemingly harmless, supremely tranquilized inmates pulling an oral Van Gogh on somebody else’s ear.

Courts try to deal with the massive influx of the mentally ill into the criminal justice system. Mental health courts are increasingly in acceptance, groups like Colorado Coalition for the Homeless do their best to get the lowest level street people into housing and employment and off of drugs and booze, but the numbers are just so staggering. In the present economic climate, it’s always the poorest of the poor who get the shaft first and worst.

When I was a kid, my father started a church. Eventually, there was a building and the original 20 or 25 of my father’s disciples melded in with an ever-increasing flock. There was one of the original crew who’ll I never forget, though. His name was Dick and he had an accent straight out of the "Andy Griffith Show," and black hair that he slicked back à la George Clooney in "O Brother, Where Art Thou." On Sunday mornings, he’d drive down to Portsmouth’s skid row and find an old drunk named Andy, who was not altogether there, and who’d lost his legs and scooted around town on a board with wheels. Dick would haul Andy into his old car and bring him to church; he wanted to make sure that Andy had one place to be safe, warm, and loved.

I see so many people on our streets and in our courts who simply don’t know the meaning of those words, perhaps never have, and perhaps never will. It is a shame on our nation and our criminal justice system. And like that day when I stood over the autistic boy pounding the floor of the courthouse, I have no idea what to do. D

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