Mental illness in the court

The charge of failure to report for mandatory drug tests while on probation typically brings an additional time on probation for the convicted felon. Probation includes mandatory reporting, drug tests, payments and contact with the probation officers regarding housing. Failing to comply with the terms results in additional probation and/or incarceration in the county jail, Community Correction Center or the Arkansas Department of Correction.

The decisions come cut and dry, until reality throws a monkey wrench into the neatly arranged court hearings as it did recently when the attorney for the accused asked for leniency for his middle age man clad in the striped jump suit of a county jail inmate. He explained that fear and anxiety held the severely mentally ill man back and away from the probation office and all its stipulations. His attorney asked the judge to consider a suspended imposition of sentencing so his client would not have to venture out of his safety zone as often. The client did not like the shots the clinic used to calm his mind and had not been taking his medications regularly.

Prior to his arrest for failing to appear, the accused had applied and qualified for Supplemental Security Income. That provided him with a grand total of $730 each month to cover his cost of living. Before his arrest for failing his probation, he had lived with his mother.

His mother also appeared in court and approached the bench at the judge’s request.

“He lives with you? You are a licensed driver?” the judge asked.

She agreed and began back pedaling. “He can’t live with me anymore. This has been going on for years and years. He will have to grow up and do what he has to do.”

The judge shook his head. Severe mental illness is not simply a matter of an individual being unwilling to grow up and doing what needs to be done.

Everyone agreed the man could not get better without medications, let alone manage to grow up — not even with medical help. But the mother had lost her energy, “I can’t take care of him,” she declared.

“It’s my fault for not staying on the meds,” her son said.

“When you were born you had a good brain,” she responded.

The judge pondered what to do. “Isn’t there a doctor for the jail?”

“She comes once a week,” the officer from the jail officer said.

“Is there a nurse?”

“He is on some heavy medication,” his mother volunteered.

“They do not allow any meds like that in the jail,” the officer said.

So here was a man who needed medication to keep his brain in reality. He had failed to comply with the terms of his probation, but being incarcerated would simply aggravate his delusional perception of the world. Obviously no one wanted to incarcerate a man who needs medications to maintain even a semblance of sanity.

“I will help him look for a place to live,” his mother said — just not her place. His mental state had tried her patience, challenged her aging strength and left her too tired to continue.

A silence of suspense and puzzlement hung over the court. How can the state help the mentally confused, keep them safe, keep the public safe and keep them in compliance with the simplest aspects of the law? The issue repeatedly comes to court.

One of the women who usually sits quietly at the table doing paperwork stood up. “He can go to Split Rail in Prescott. He can apply and they will see if he meets their qualifications.”

Split Rail offers a permanent home to the mentally bewildered; the ones who can not simply be told to “grow up and do what is right.” It offers a safe place for individuals who need assistance to survive. Residents share a dorm room, have the freedom to check in and out and a staff trained to deal with the plethora of issues that the mentally ill person presents.

It is a voluntary, state commitment facility that offers long term help. The clerk thought that probation could possibly be worked out with the staff at Split Rail.

The judge agreed. He revoked the probation and extended it one year on the condition that the man gets there and takes his medications therapeutically.

“It is no good if it is not used. Let’s get him some help,” the judge said.

Hopefully that help can be found at Split Rail. Otherwise the state offers few other options for individuals with severe mental illnesses.

Joan Hershberger is a staff writer for the El Dorado News Times. She can be reached at