Saturday, February 24, 2007

My Trip to Treatment Court

Also called "mental health courts," treatment courts have been popping up throughout the country in an attempt to deal with mentally ill individuals who become involved with the criminal justice system, but really don't belong in it. I've had some experience dealing with mentally ill individuals in the context of my job within the criminal justice system, and I am in complete agreement that the courts, jails, and prisons are unable to either help the mentally ill people that come afoul of the law or protect the community. My personal feeling is that if there were some way to help the mentally ill become stabilized over the long-term and integrated into society, society would then be protected from them, and there would be no need to warehouse these people as is currently being done to a greater or lesser extent.

My view of this seems to be shared by our newest district judge, the chief deputy district attorney and our court administrator. As a result, we have been meeting to discuss creating a treatment court here. As part of our investigation into the viability of this, we took a trip to a treatment court in another jurisdiction yesterday. It was exciting to see the participants complying with their medications, and thereby complying with their probation, stabilized, and happy. The program we observed appears to be helping the people in the community, and I commend them for doing such a good job with it in such a short time. (The program is only about 6 months old.)

However, the more we spoke with the judge in charge of the program, the more frustrated I became with the lack of resources we have here. The program I observed would never have got off the ground if the treatment providers in the community hadn't backed the program immediately and enthusiastically. Virtually all the services in the area were on board and doing what they could to help, and that's great. But here we have almost no services at all. There is one program that provides caseworkers to help the mentally ill find residences, get on disability, etc., but they are so under-funded and overworked that the turnover is astronomical and the staff is poorly trained. I believe we have 2 therapists in the private sector, and it takes months to get an appointment, even if you can pay them or have insurance. I don't even know whether they take medicaid or medicare, but I doubt it.

Another concern I have is that the treatment court I observed is a part of probation. This means that the participant must have (at some point) been competent to stand trial or plead guilty to a crime. That's all fine, and everything. But the clients that I have had that I'm most concerned about aren't competent to stand trial or plead guilty, even when they are taking their medications. When they are taking their medications, they are no longer dangerous, so they don't have to be locked up. But when this occurrs, their criminal cases are dismissed, and there is no one to monitor whether they continue with their medications or not. So, as soon as they're off their medications, they get in trouble with the law again. The clients I have that are competent when they're on their meds are placed on probation (usually) and they're monitored by their probation officer. Some times this works and some times this doesn't, but at least they're not completely on their own, like those whose cases are dismissed.

What would be more helpful, I think, is a program in which someone whose case is pending is monitored by a treatment court, and then their charges are dismissed when they successfully complete it. It would be an alternative to them being found incompetent while sitting in jail for months and then going to the state mental hospital. The mental hospital would appreciate it, since they're always short of beds; and the client would appreciate it, since they wouldn't have to sit in jail waiting for a competency evaluation to be completed. I think there's a treatment court like that in a different town in the state, so I'm going to push to observe that next time our little team meets.

But our trip was a good learning experience!

Sunday, February 11, 2007


So, it's gray and rainy and about 50 degrees outside today. One of those days where you want to curl up with some hot tea, jazz music, and a good book. Or maybe my knitting. It makes me think that it's almost spring-time, but I know not to get my hopes up. After all, we haven't had the Saint Patrick's Day blizzard yet. (It always seems to snow here in the middle of March, even if there have been a couple of days in the 70's or even 80's in February.) Normally gray days make me sleepy and depressed. Why else would I live in the middle of the desert, the land of perpetual sunshine? But today, the gray-ness makes me feel oddly good. Quiet, serene, and somewhat introspective. In a word: Cozy.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Appreciation Unlooked-for

Every year (mostly) the local bar association holds a dinner-dance party thing for all the lawyers in the county. It's usually kind of fun, since you get to talk to other lawyers who you don't necessarily see regularly, and you get to watch the older generation loosen up a bit. We younger-generation public defenders don't really frequent the same social circles as the older, more established attorneys do. There's usually a cocktail party thing prior to the actual dinner, and last night, a bunch of us went back to the cocktail party after the dinner to kind of hang out for a while.

Anyway, when we were heading out and saying our good-byes and thank-yous, an attorney I don't talk to very much began a conversation with me. I mean I know him to say hi to, but that's about it. He started out by informing me that civil practice isn't about chasing money. His practice has made him very comfortable, don't get me wrong. But nothing compared to what our host had, at least judging by the house we were in and the vehicles in the driveway! I honestly think that the lawyer I was speaking with really enjoys doing what he does, and would do it even if he wasn't going to have his father's practice handed over to him in a few years. Then, kind of abruptly, this attorney holds out his hand over the bar for me to shake it (he was acting bar-tender at the moment) and thanks me for doing what I do. I must have appeared a little confused, because he then tells me of a guy who called him this week needing an attorney to represent him in a criminal case, and it took him all of 2 minutes to realize that there was no way this guy could pay him. So the attorney informs the guy of this, tells him to get a public defender, and then hangs up the phone. I don't believe this was out of greed or anything, this attorney does take his fair share of pro bono cases. The attorney then reaches out his hand for me to shake it again, and tells me that he really appreciates what I do, and he thanks me again.

The first thing that entered my head in response to this conversation was that I don't do this for him, I do it for the guy on the phone. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe I do do it for him, in a way. I really am glad that he can practice the type of law he enjoys without feeling obliged to take this guy's case when he has no desire to do so. I'm also happy that he can refer this guy to our office without worrying whether he will receive good representation. I realized then that I not only do this to assist our clients, I do this to assist the community by fulfilling a societal need that most people would prefer to ignore altogether.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Knitting Update

And so, my trip to the yarn shop was a complete success! I got bunches of cuddly blue yarn to make a sweater with. A nice easy one, with minimal complications. Below is my goal, except that it won't be orange:

I got some needles made of bamboo, and lo and behold, they're actually the right size! My mother always used aluminum ones, but they only had bamboo at the store. I think I like the bamboo ones better anyway. They're not so cold and slippery. I tested the gauge (how many stitches to an inch) last night, and I was right on target. That is, after the first couple rows where I was trying to remember how all this works. The only thing I had to ask MD for help with was the beginning part, where you put the stitches on the needles (casting on). She was even impressed at my speed and even-ness! I was so excited that I did 6 rows last night, and I think I'll do more while the Superbowl is on. I think this is going to be fun!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

"Won't My Mommy Be So Proud of Me?"

Well, this may come as a shock to those of you who know me, but I'm planning to start knitting. I've never been anyone you could confuse with Martha Stewart. I tend to get impatient with picky crafty things. You know, the little mini-pom-poms that refuse to stay glued together, or needle-point where you have to count everything exactly and put the needle in precisely the right location, and what do you do with needle-point once you're finished with it, anyway? Knitting, though, seems like something I could handle. It's not so precise that you have to think about it that much, and you can do it while other things are going on without losing track of where you are. You see, my mother has always knitted, and she taught me how when I was very small. When my sister and I brought books everywhere with us, our mother brought her knitting. After supper, my sister, sometimes my father and I would be reading our books, my mother would be knitting. Granted, the last thing I recall knitting was a dress for my Barbie-doll. But it had a cable and everything (the little braid-looking things on sweaters). I'm pretty sure I remember how to do the basic stuff.

So, what brought this on, one might ask? Partly the realization that I need a hobby in the worst way. Something that's not just watching t.v. or playing video games. Partly, it's because my friend MD knits, and she's been talking about starting a group thing where a few of us go to a local coffee shop, help each other knit, and talk about anything non-work related. So, I'm on board. It sounds like a nice change of pace from going out to the same bar with the same people all the time, or secluding myself at home to watch the same movies over again.

So, I'm all excited about going to the yarn shop this afternoon with MD to get yarn, needles and a pattern book. (Preferably one that includes basic how-to instructions also, in case I can't remember as much as I think I do.) I'll keep you all posted on the progress, and maybe include a picture if I ever finish my project.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Happy Snow Day!

Now, normally, I'm not much of a snow person. I like sunshine and warm days. However, I can't deny that snow is pretty. And if it means I get to slack off for a couple hours while waiting for New Mexico's snow removal technique to take effect, that's even better. In case you're wondering, New Mexico's snow removal technique appears to be to wait for it to melt. No doubt that's the most economical approach, but it doesn't always work. This is especially the case on days like today, where it's overcast and not expected to get above freezing. If it were just the inch or so of snow, I'd go into the office and get some stuff done. But since there's about a quarter inch of ice under the snow, I think I'll wait and see whether they're going to call off the entire day. (The snow that fell yesterday melted a little and then froze again overnight, with more snow falling over it, and more snow is supposed to fall later today.)
I do have to go in at some point today, as I have a client getting transported from the jail to watch a video pertinent to his case. He's trying to decide whether to take a plea on quite serious charges that could result in his being sent to prison for 20 years or so. I've been trying to talk him into letting me try it, since there is a good defense, but his biggest fear is getting acquitted. How's that for strange? He's a sweet kid, too. Ah well. I should see whether we're still on a 2-hour delay.