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Stop Criminalizing Health Issues

Kevin Garrett

If someone has a broken leg how much time should they be offered? How about if someone is diagnosed cancer, what should their sentence be? Sounds ridiculous, but that is exactly what the criminal justice system has been doing since the 70’s. 

Criminalizing what should be a heath care issue and locking people up for alcoholism, addiction, mental health issues, and the worst of all – poverty.

I can vividly recall court-appointed lawyers who did the bare minimum to represent their non-paying clients, approaching the bench and saying “Yes, I represent the defendant.” One of the things that struck me as peculiar and unfair was that these court-appointed lawyers were always relaying what the prosecutor was offering in terms of a plea agreement. 

The implicit message was that judge, state, and defense had already decided I was guilty, the only thing left to work out was how much time was going to be handed down. I always felt that all three were working together, which was in a sense true. 

While in law school, I discovered a thing called judicial economy. Guilt or innocence has no room for litigation on a court docket full of people (mostly of color) who cannot afford to pay an attorney to do what he/she is ethically bound to do – zealously assert the client’s position. Because clearing dockets seems to trump mental and other health issues, court-appointed representation in Texas means having a negotiator rather than an advocate. 

There are far too many gaps in services between jails, courts, LMHAs, and defense lawyers. Health issues should not be an impairment to fair representation. This, of course, takes tact and patience for families unable to reach direct service providers. And because attorney-client privilege and HIPAA laws are sometimes used as a shield to prevent help, collaboration and team building with others is critical. Families should know that they need not retain a high-priced lawyer to go over the court-appointed lawyer’s head to get the help they need. 

The bottom line is this: Texas has spent far too many tax dollars and negatively impacted too many lives in past policies that benefited no one. Check that. Maybe the private prisons made profits, but neither taxpayer nor prisoners needing health services have had their burdens alleviated. Let’s change the narrative of calling jails mental health providers and telling taxpayers we are making safer communities – jail is for criminals, not sick people.


Kevin Garrett
Feb 3rd, 2020
About "Peer Voices" - We believe that true systems change can only come from being informed and led by peers. This space brings the voices of lived experience such as TJP's own Peer Policy Fellow Kevin Garrett and other peers who are passionate about systemic change in the justice and mental health system. In speaking their truth and telling their stories, they provide courage, hope and support to each and every one of us engaged in this difficult work.

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