Respite Possible for Mentally Disabled in Legal Limbo
Revisions would tweak the process to allow more defendants with mental health, developmental disabilities to get more timely hearings.
By Rose Hoban
In 2007, Floyd Lee Brown was released from Dorothea Dix Hospital after being confined there for 14 years, charged with a crime he was never tried for, after signing a questionable confession. Brown languished at Dix because he was intellectually disabled, with an IQ in the low 50s.
Because of his disability, the district attorney and the prosecutor agreed that Brown’s limited intellectual capacities rendered him “incapable of proceeding” to trial. So, he sat in Dix for 14 years.
Now a group of legislators, advocates and law enforcement officials are wrapping up an effort to revise North Carolina’s laws to reduce the number of people, like Brown, who get stuck between the mental health system and the criminal system without their cases being resolved.
“I saw these people becoming trapped in these revolving doors that there was no way out of,” said Rep. Shirley Randleman (R-WIlkesboro) who retired from 34 years as the Clerk of Superior Court in Wilkes County before being elected to the General Assembly in 2008.
“Someone is suspected of committing a crime, they’re incarcerated, their ‘capacity’ is questioned, the court orders them to Central Regional Hospital for evaluation, Central Regional finds them incapable to proceed, and then they go back to the jail, then the judge sends to them to the state hospital, they get medicated, then they do another capacity hearing, they go back to Central Regional, they go back to the county jail,” Randleman explained in an interview.
Often, Randleman said, defendants end up spending more time incarcerated than if they were convicted and sentenced, “yet at the same time, there’s no closure for the victims.”
“There could be and should be an expedited process that eliminates the revolving door and provides justice for all,” Randleman said. That’s why she pushed for creating the Incapacity to Proceed Committee, which has been working for the past six months.
Better communication, more training
Sheriffs have complained of the time and money they need to spend to take someone to Central Regional Hospital in Butner, which replaced Dix and the former John Umstead Hospital in 2008. Sheriffs often travel from faraway counties said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. One of the recommended changes to the law would create a system for certifying forensic evaluators who could be more widely distributed around the state, not just located at the state hospital in Butner, 45 minutes north of Raleigh.
Another recommendation is to have forensic evaluators located in each county to evaluate people who commit
lower-level felonies and misdemeanors, and negating the costs of transporting defendants altogether.
“The cost of dealing with (these defendants) is very high. So anything that can be done to make the process more efficient while being fair is important to creating efficiencies,” Caldwell said.
Further recommendations from the committee include getting more training for judges, attorneys and prosecutors on recognizing signs of mental illness and developmental disabilities in defendants, and the possibility of mandating crisis intervention training for all law enforcement officers in the state.
Caldwell said his organization would support the committee’s recommendations.
No more Floyd Lee Brown
Carolina. Many, if not most, of the people who get trapped in the system because of a mental illness or an intellectual disability have not committed violent crimes.
“I think people have this vision that people with mental health disabilities are violent,” Dunn said, “but we’re talking the full breadth of criminal charges. That’s everything from shoplifting up through felony murder.”
Dunn said, for example, someone with an intellectual disability could commit a crime that has a maximum 9 month sentence, and end up sitting in a forensic mental health unit for far longer. The law, as currently written, gives a judge the option to dismiss charges if a defendant has served time in excess of what his sentence might have been.
That didn’t happen in Floyd Lee Brown’s case. After he had been in Dix Hospital for ten years, his attorneys filed for a dismissal of his charges. The judge refused.
One of the committee’s proposed changes would compel a judge to dismiss charges in a situation like Brown’s.
“We’re talking about a lot of people not necessarily charged with violent crimes, whose lives are effectively destroyed by this kind of commitment,” said Dunn. She explained that while incarcerated, people can lose homes, jobs and opportunities for placements in treatment programs.
More places for forensic evaluations
The committee also wants the General Assembly to look deeper into the possibility of creating more forensic units around the state that could focus on evaluation, and on helping people with intellectual disabilities function better. That
“We do need a separate forensic unit for people with intellectual disabilities so that they don’t get overwhelmed,” said Julia Adams, lobbyist for the ARC, an organization that works with people with developmental disabilities.
“The statute as it stands now has more language that reflects mental illness,” Adams said. She explained most of the laws around capacity to proceed focus on treating someone with a mental illness so that they can eventually go to trial. But for people with serious intellectual disabilities, like Floyd Lee Brown, that may never be possible.
“The needs for our population are more long-term,” Adams said.
Adams and others who worked on the committee all said they were pleased with the process and the variety of viewpoints represented.
“There was a good deal of learning going on in this room and some real compromises taking place,” said Disability Rights’ Dunn.
“When all the discussions were going on, every perspective that could be out there on this issue was represented, listened to, and considered,” said Caldwell from the Sheriffs’ Association.
Dunn, Caldwell and others expressed a similar concern that people with mental health problems receive due process while they’re in the criminal justice system, and making careful decisions.
“Everyone understands the impact of determining that someone can or can’t go to trial,” said Caldwell. “That raises issue of if they’re not capable, and we can’t hold them in jail and we let them out, and they go out and hurt someone, what we have done then?”