Just because a person has a mental illness, doesn’t mean he can’t be charged with a crime.
That’s what the Fairfax County prosecutor told the detective who arrested my son after he broke into an unoccupied house during a psychotic break to take a bubble bath. My son was charged with two felonies, even though I had tried unsuccessfully to get him into a hospital 48 hours earlier for treatment.
I was reminded of that prosecutor’s words this week when Gail Marguerite Wray sent me a news clipping from the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum. I’d met Wray when I spoke in Idaho at a National Alliance on Mental Illness event.
The news story was about Darice Olsen, a 52 year-old Sun Valley woman who was convicted of a felony for driving under the influence. Olsen was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison last April by Blaine County 5th District Court Judge Robert J. Elgee who insisted that Olsen serve at least 22 months in jail before being considered for parole.
The reason for the six-plus years sentence was because Olsen had been convicted of drunk driving in 2012, 2007 and in 2005. She also was convicted twice in other states for drunk driving related charges.
Her defense attorney pleaded for mercy, explaining that Olsen had “a serious mental disorder” (unspecified in the article) and a co-occurring alcohol addiction. He asked the judge to send Olsen to an in-patient treatment program rather than to prison.
Judge Elgee refused, noting that Olsen had been through treatment programs in the past. The newspaper quoted him saying: “Nothing works — that’s the bottom line here — nothing works… It’s the repeated, repeated, repeated driving of a car. She’s had multiple chances, but she keeps coming back again and again and again.”
He sent Olsen to prison.
Last month, less than a year after she was sentenced, Olsen committed suicide by hanging herself from a jail bunk.
In her letter to me, Gail Wray recalled that she had met Olsen at a Farmer’s Market where Olsen was selling handbags made from recycled plastic grocery bags. This gave her a personal interest in Olsen’s case.
Gail wrote a letter to the newspaper, asking “Why put a person with mental illness or addictions in jail when we don’t place people living with heart conditions or cancer in jail as a form of treatment…This is yet another tragedy related to someone from our community that could have been avoided.”
Was sending Olsen to prison justified?
Clearly the frustrated judge believed Olsen had been given enough chances. Previous treatment programs hadn’t stopped her from drinking and driving. The judge declared: “nothing works” — a statement that implies Olsen had received and exhausted appropriate treatment for her problems. That’s a big assumption.
I’m curious if Olsen received treatment for both her underlying mental illness and her addiction to alcohol? Trying to treat someone with a serious mental disorder for alcoholism without also treating their underlying mental illness is a recipe for failure. If someone has two broken legs, you can’t fix one and then criticize them for not being able to run.
Also implied in the judge’s decision was that Olsen was solely responsible for her actions. She’d chosen to get behind the wheel while drunk.
This is where things get tricky when it comes to mental illnesses. If her brain was impaired before she began drinking, how responsible should she be for decisions that she made after she got drunk?
Historically our criminal justice system hasn’t had much sympathy for defendants with mental illnesses, even serious ones. This is especially true if a defendant fails after being sent to a treatment program. This is unfortunate. I am not certain how many judges and prosecutors truly understand serious mental illnesses. Disorders such as bipolar disorder with psychotic features and schizophrenia are not quickly or easily treated. Would a judge be critical of someone who had lung cancer if they didn’t respond to chemotherapy? Of course not, then why would it be surprising if someone who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia had several breaks going through “treatment?” Taking control of your life if you have a serious mental illness can be a long process of ups and downs.
Finally, I am curious what Judge Elgee hoped to accomplish by locking-up Olsen for 22 months? Did he think sending her to prison would teach her a lesson and cause her to stop drinking? If so, then the judge isn’t familiar with co-occurring disorders or mental illnesses that are believed to be embedded in our DNA. Except for keeping Olsen off the road, the judge’s action accomplished nothing. Had Olsen not committed suicide, there’s a good chance she would have returned to drinking as soon as she was paroled.
I commend Wray for writing a letter to the editor and calling Olsen’s death a preventable tragedy.
I look forward to a day when our justice system will realize that whenever someone with a serious mental disorder commits a crime, the consequences must include consideration of their illness and the impact it might have played. I look forward to a day when our justice system will recognize the importance of meaningful and appropriate treatment. Until that day arrives, we are left with only retribution and in cases that involve mental illnesses, that is both short-sighted and often unjust.
Olsen needed help. What she got was punishment. Sending her to jail was a waste of tax dollars and the wrong thing to do.