If a loved one with mental illness or suspected mental illness is arrested, the goal is to transition the person as quickly as possible from the legal system to the healthcare system. The Los Angeles NAMI Criminal Justice Committee has posted a very thorough seven-step guide to help families navigate the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County when a family member who suffers from a brain disorder (mental illness) is arrested. It’s called “Mental Illness Arrest: What do I do?”
This post changes the process a bit, removes details related to the Los Angeles jail, includes some additional notes and tips, and presents everything in more of a checklist format.
- Support your loved one.
- If he/she calls, remain calm and supportive.
- Remind your loved one of the right to have an attorney present during questioning.
- Assure your loved one that talking about her diagnosis and medications with the jail’s nurses or medical staff is safe.
- Ask to speak with the person in charge – the supervisor or “watch commander.”
- Inform the supervisor of your loved one’s diagnosis or, if your loved one hasn’t been diagnosed as having a mental illness, why you suspect that mental illness may be involved.
- If your loved one has been exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, request to have him or her taken to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation.
- Ask if your loved one is expected to be released directly from the jail and find out where and when so you can be there. If your loved one will not be released soon, request that he or she receive a mental health evaluation.
- If charges are filed, obtain the court date and address of where the first hearing will take place.
- Obtain information about the facility and about family visits.
- Obtain the name, phone, and fax number of the supervisor or watch commander.
- Ask if the jail has a medical or mental health services department and, if it does, ask for the phone and fax number and the name of the person in charge.
- Your loved one’s full legal name, date of birth, booking number, and current residential address.
- His/her diagnosis or why you believe the person’s behavior is the result of a mental illness.
- Psychiatrist or treating physician’s name, phone number, and address.
- All current medications, dosages, time of day to be administered, name and number of pharmacy.
- Information about medication that’s proven to be effective/ineffective or that has caused serious negative side effects.
- Any history of suicide attempts or threats.
- Information about other medical conditions that might require attention.
- Whether your loved one has provided you with a written confidentiality waiver. If not, ask that he or she be requested to sign one while in jail.
- Important: Do NOT address any impending charges in the fax. Keep all communication focused on health issues, not legal issues.
- Mental health court program: Ask the jail if the jurisdiction has a mental health court program to assist mentally ill defendants in the criminal justice system. Ask if the program has a mental health caseworker who can be assigned to the case.
- Community Mental Health Center: Call the County Mental Health Department or Community Mental Health Center (CMHC) that’s in the same county/jurisdiction as the jail and report the arrest and your concerns. Someone at the CMHC may have more success at obtaining information and ensuring that your loved one receives the necessary medication/treatment.
- Mental Health America: Call the Mental Health America affiliate in the same county/jurisdiction as the jail for additional information and support. (Go to www.nmha.org to look up affiliates.)
- National Disability Rights Network: If you believe that your loved one is being mistreated, report your concerns to your state’s disability rights agency. Visit www.in.gov/ipas to look up information about your state’s disability rights agency.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Contact the nearest NAMI affiliate for support for yourself and your loved one. You can look up your local NAMI affiliate online at nami.org. Chances are good that a NAMI member near you has had a similar experience.
- If your loved one doesn’t have or can’t afford a private attorney, a public defender will be appointed. Public defenders often have knowledge of the system as it pertains to mental health services.
- If your loved one chooses to retain a private attorney, find one who’s had experience defending people with mental illness and knows how to use the system’s mental health resources to a defendant’s advantage.
Warning: Avoid the temptation to merely bail out your loved one. Always consider the endgame – if you bail out the person, then what? You’re usually better off working through the justice system to try to transition your loved one to a mental health facility for treatment. The justice system may have more power than you do to help someone who doesn’t think he or she needs help or refuses treatment.
Photo by Elvert Barnes, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.