Julia Steiny: Justice System Can’t Ignore Mental Health


By Julia Steiny

A woman we’ll call Jane embezzled money from her company. She’d been feeding a nasty gambling habit and her boss figured it out.  She was arrested, jailed, and wound up in front of a judge.

Now, what would normally happen at this point in her story is that the courts would determine her guilt or innocence, via lawyers and evidence.  Actually, her crime was so blatant, they hardly needed to bother.  After exhausting a lot of resources proving the obvious, she normally would have been sentenced and added to the prison population for who-knows-how long.

Instead, lucky Jane came before Judge Pamela Williams, who then presided over the mental health court in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Williams has since become the Chief Judge of the region’s Family Courts.  Her career began with 20 years working with Legal Aid, focusing mostly on the mentally ill, drug-addicted, poor, and illiterate.  In 2003 she was appointed to be a judge in the juvenile justice courts.  In that role, she made a name for herself by radically reducing recidivism, which really should be the point of a court system.  Her success led to her being tapped to develop a specialized mental health court in 2010.  It was there that she met Jane.

For years, Jane had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. 

Jane gambled compulsively during her manic episodes.  This is by no means excuses what she did.  But she was falling apart.  Her marriage was on the rocks, and of course her former employer all but wanted blood.  The traditional justice system is not really set up to consider the conditions in which a crime is committed.  A crook is a crook, no matter the complicated circumstances such as mental illness.

Whether in Halifax or the U.S., the mentally ill tend to get involved with the law, which only sees guilt and innocence as the issue, not how to stop the cycle.  In America, the largest mental health facilities are prisons.

When working in the juvenile justice system, Williams began using restorative justice techniques.  As such, she used the occasion of the crime as a red flag signaling mental or social illness.  Before passing judgment, she reached out to the kid’s immediate and extended family, social services, teachers, and whomever could help get him or her out of whatever wretched place they were in and onto a more productive road.

When possible, the offender would face his victims and hear their experience.  The kid needed to make things right by doing restitution and taking responsibility for her actions.  But the group needed to get to the root problem and solve it so the community was not continuously harmed by the anti-social behavior, or recidivism would surely occur.  Not surprisingly, the RJ is far more effective at reducing reoffending than traditional justice, because its techniques unpack mitigating circumstances like mental illness.

Jane’s was a relatively simple case.  

Williams got professionals involved to get her stabilized on proper drugs.  Once she was stable, Jane’s husband was willing to let those same professionals educate him about the illness itself and what he could do to de-escalate her symptoms and to take care of himself.  She learned to be more responsible; he learned to avoid being victimized by her.

Once Jane had a support system in place, Williams held a RJ conference (meeting) with the employer who, frankly, called Jane a liar and a thief.  But when he heard the larger story about her journey with mental illness, he felt less targeted and also less victimized.  The conference participants helped her figure out how to make restitution to the employer.  He walked away satisfied.

Williams says, “Once we understand each others’ stories, it helps.  Jane heard how her actions had affected others.”  She felt the hurt she’d caused.  Her remorse motivates her to be med compliant and self-controlled.  End of story.

The Courts never saw her again.  A very good thing.  We need to understand more about mental health courts because they have the ability to stop whatever cycle the troubled person is in.

We’ll hear more of William’s fund of cases and experiences in the coming couple of weeks.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny