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Lawyers say a Pennsylvania county traps people with mental illness in jail indefinitely

Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

“Everyone is aware he is eligible to be released on July 1st,” Probation Officer Keith Taylor wrote, according to Diamond’s court filing, “however he cannot be released without an address verification (by probation office) and services in place. ... [Probation] would not be agreeable to the Salvation Army or any type of homeless shelter.”

He grew so depressed, he said, that he began to think he’d just stay in jail until he reached his maximum sentence — 12 months — then return to homelessness and even crime. “I wanted to die,” he said. “I was thinking, if I get out I’m just going to use again.”

In July, the public defender’s office successfully petitioned to vacate what it argued was his illegal sentence, noting that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled violations can’t be issued for behaviors that are neither crimes nor breaches of specified probation conditions.

Diamond is now in a treatment program, back on medication, applying for jobs, and, for the first time in months, feeling optimistic.

In other cases, according to court documents, people were jailed for behaviors that appeared to be manifestations of mental illness, or for failing to comply with halfway house rules after being out of jail for just days or weeks.

One woman with mental illness and a brain injury had been detained for six months without a hearing after allegedly violating probation by mailing pieces of glass to her probation officer. Court documents make clear the woman was delusional: She had reported to probation while clutching her mother’s ashes and a cane, professing to having been blinded by police who had stabbed her in the eyes. The DA’s Office opposed her release, arguing that it would not be safe to allow her to return home without a treatment plan; she remains in jail pending further hearings.

 

On the other hand, prosecutors agreed to drop charges for a schizophrenic man who is 69 and homeless, and who spent most of the last two years jailed for trespassing, successively, at a hospital, then a Wawa, and finally a bench outside a Main Line home. On more than one occasion, he was arrested within a day or two of release, then jailed again pending a competency evaluation, which he repeatedly passed.

By the time charges were dropped, he had already spent more than 300 days in jail without a trial for the misdemeanor offense, in part because he declined to undergo a fifth competency evaluation.

How many others may be jailed under similar circumstances is unclear. The Delaware County Defender declined to comment.

In its filings, the office argued that the response to mental illness must come from the mental health system, not the criminal-legal system.

“Prohibiting behaviors that are hardwired into a person’s brain by nature of a mental disorder is not a condition that is reasonably related to their rehabilitation,” the lawyers argued. And punishing those behaviors with incarceration “is ineffective, cruel and inconsistent with the mission of mental-health supervision.”

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