The Mental Health System Will Always Be Flawed

You simply cannot lock someone away because they might do something wrong. To do so violates the very idea of liberty and is one of the foundations for which our justice system was built upon. What do we (as a society) do when someone who is clearly mentally unstable/deranged/psychotic commits a crime that causes the pain, suffering, and/or death of another human being? How do we prevent this from happening when the mentally ill offender has shown previous willingness to inflict harm after they’ve served their time but has already paid their debt to society for previous infractions? It’s not like with a violent criminal who was behaving in a manner that had rational roots (rational being action taken for the benefit of personal gain. i.e. mugging, burglary, assault, etc.).

Clearly this case (the murder of Shannon Harps) in particular is about a person who was not in control of his own mental faculties and surrendered to the deranged impulses that arose from that. For starters, just the possibility of someone being that imbalanced and wandering around is frightening, but it goes further than that. How do we differentiate between those who are willing to listen to the voices in their head and act upon their impulses vs. those who recognize the fallacy of their condition and struggle to fight them? Even the ones who are fighting (and in so doing, meeting the expectations of society) their impulses may lapse, just as easily as the one who has no will to suppress their psychotic tendencies. I don’t have an answer to this question, and I’m not sure anyone does. It’s intractable because any answer will either impinge upon the liberty of the community and the people living on the edge of sanity (and really, who isn’t these days), or it will put the larger community at greater risk for random violence from those who are just too far gone to want to help.

James Anthony Williams, charged with the first degree murder of Shannon Harps, has an extensive history of mental illness and interactions with law enforcement.

The man’s mental problems date back to when he was a child in Arkansas. In the 1980s, he would cut his arms, believe he was being controlled by radiation, fixate on his facial features or think his aunt was trying to kill him with a remote control. He’d already been convicted of burglary, forgery and a host of misdemeanors before he shot a man at a Seattle bus stop in 1995. After his arrest, a state psychologist found no evidence that he was suffering from “a major mental disorder” at that time.

He was sentenced to 11 years behind bars, where prosecutors say he ran afoul of prison rules 248 times. When he was released in March 2006, he was deemed a Dangerous Mentally Ill Offender, a program created after a mentally ill man released from jail fatally stabbed retired Seattle firefighter Stanley Stevenson in 1997. Such offenders are put under more intense Department of Corrections scrutiny for up to five years after their release and must get regular mental health care. A year after his March 2006 release from prison, Williams allegedly threatened to shoot all the caseworkers at a Seattle mental health treatment center. The charges were dismissed when he was found not mentally fit to stand trial. In September, he threatened a woman and spent several months in jail. On Dec. 17 — just two weeks before Harps was killed — a Seattle Municipal Court judge ordered that he be evaluated to determine whether he should be involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Williams went free Dec. 21.

(Via Seattle PI)

According to the Seattle Times, Williams was actively monitored during his transition back into society.

Classified as a Dangerous Mentally Ill Offender, he did receive enhanced supervision in the community, according to the King County Prosecutor’s Office and DOC officials. He was brought before the court several times when he violated his conditions, was once sent to Western State Hospital for involuntary commitment, was sanctioned to various jail terms and was ordered to continue outpatient mental-health treatment, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.

Despite this monitoring, Williams continued to attract the attention of law enforcement.

In March, he told a police officer that he planned to “shoot all his caseworkers” at Sound Mental Health. In September, police found an 8-inch butcher knife in his sweat-shirt pocket after the landlord of his Capitol Hill apartment told police he had threatened her. He stayed in jail on that charge until just 10 days before Harps was slain.

The reaction to this information has been highly emotional. The comments from friends in one of my personal blog contain indignation, anger, and fear. “Someone like that should have NEVER been let out of prison in the first damn place!” “The guy should not have running around loose and some folks should be in a tremendous amount of trouble over this. I understand that they can’t lock up every loony, but this guy had a history of threats.” “It is sad to know that you can get away with that much before you’re considered a Threat to Society, but I know how everyone would rather assume the best.

In an email from my husband, he also felt similar to my friends but expanded on the subject: “It’s not the justice system in this case that’s fucked up. This was a case of mis-applying the principals of our system of justice to an individual who was not mentally fit to participate in a free society. He was a danger to others and everyone knew it, but due to the system’s written inability to indefinitely detain someone who has done no wrong or has already served their time for what they were convicted of, they couldn’t just “lock him up forever” as was probably warranted in this nutjob’s case. Even psychological evaluators cannot be 100% certain 100% of the time that when a person who’s known to be unstable like this says “I’m going to kill you”, that they actually intend to follow through with it.

I wanted to look into some questions that I had from this tragic story. The Community Integration Assistance Program (formerly known as the Mentally Ill Offender program) was created after Stanley Stevenson was stabbed to death by a mentally ill man, Dan Van Ho, after leaving a Mariner’s baseball game. Dan Van Ho was found not guilty by reason of insanity (read the ruling here). The case forced the state to create a program to monitor the dangerous mentally ill offenders. Williams was one of 70 such offenders in the program at this time. “While his history might have been enough to place Williams under the increased oversight of the program, a record of such behavior isn’t enough for commitment to Western State Hospital, said Thomas Saltrup, director of behavioral health services for the Corrections Department.” (via Seattle PI)

This raises the question: does this program actually help keep the community safe? I did some Google-Fu and found a 2005 report put together by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The findings of this report were as follows:

  • Fewer DMIO participants (33.5 percent) were reconvicted for a new offense (felony or misdemeanor) compared with CTS subjects (52.6 percent);
  • Fewer DMIO participants (13.9 percent) were reconvicted of felonies compared with CTS subjects (27.6 percent); and
  • More time elapsed before DMIO participants committed a new offense.

It appears that the program is helping at least decrease the amount of repeat offenses. This brings me to the next question, sparked by a post from the Miller Park Neighborhood blog by Andrew Taylor. If we have such dangerous mentally ill folks transitioning back into society, are the centers in charge of the transition helping to keep the communities where the transitions take place safe? What safeguards do they have in place to prevent a situation such as the one that occurred on New Years Eve?

Thomas Saltrup, director of behavioral health services, and Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail have agreed to arrange a meeting between prison officials, mental health professionals, deputy prosecutors and police to study the Williams case. Hopefully this leads to new safeguards and check/balance procedures that lead to the community as a whole becoming safer, while still giving the offenders a chance to possibly transition back into the public.

It may sound strange, but I actually feel bad for the guy who did this. I get the impression (although this isn’t written anywhere I could find) that the guy knows what he did was wrong, but he just can’t help himself. He’s tortured by his own mind, and that to me is terrifying and pitiable. At the same time, I want so desperately to hate him, call him a monster, and dehumanize him for robbing me of my security blanket.

Suffice to say, there will always be problems between the mentally ill and the general public. Let’s just hope that there is a lesson to be learned from this to prevent further deaths.

(Also, I want to include in this post that Williams may not have committed the murder of Shannon Harps. He has only been charged with first degree murder and has not been judged by a court of law for this case.)

1 Comment so far

  1. Beth (unregistered) on January 31st, 2008 @ 11:16 am

    Wow- this was really thorough, and an interesting read. Like you, I’m somewhat at a loss to find a good solution that would work 100 percent of the time. But I think the best thing we can do is get informed and be involved- and I’m glad you’re doing that.

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