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Elain Ellerbe | November 7, 2017
By definition an oxymoron is “a figure of speech in which two opposite ideas are joined to create an effect”. Given the severe lack of mental health services in Louisiana and the all too frequent use of incarceration for mentally ill or substance addicted individuals that definition sums up quite well the sad state of affairs we continue to grapple with in the Pelican State.
Recently, however, a retired Judge Oscar Kazen, who was Texas’ first full-time mental health judge, came to the capitol city to speak to criminal justice, public health, and government leaders on how to make better use of judges and courts by enabling them to order treatment for the mentally ill – rather than sentencing them to incarceration. In a recent article by The Advocate-Baton Rouge, Judge Kazen cited a 2008 Louisiana law that gives the state the ability to emulate a mental health court model similar to the one that was so successfully implemented in Texas. (Remember, Texas successfully reduced its imprisonment rate by 16 percent, while simultaneously cutting crime by 30 percent–yes, that Texas!)
The little known Louisiana law has rarely been utilized since it was passed by the Louisiana legislature in 2008. The premise of the law allows the court to find – by clear and convincing evidence – that if the patient meets the criteria for involuntary outpatient treatment, then the court shall order that the patient receive involuntary outpatient treatment for an initial period not to exceed six months. The court must also state reasons why the proposed treatment plan is the least restrictive and most feasible for the patient. Treatment, as a plan of action for combatting mental illness and substance abuse is a far better use of resources and more effective than locking someone up in prison where there is little to no treatment programs.
So why has Louisiana not utilized this far more viable means to assist the mentally ill or substance abuser? From quotes found in the Advocate article, it appears no one really knows. John Nosacka of the Capital Area Human Services District, the state’s point of contact for providing mental health and substance abuse treatment states that when he heard the law passed, he remembered celebrating and thinking how many people it would help, yet, “The law passed and we waited, and we waited, and we heard nothing”. Joseph Seyler, director of the state’s Mental Health Advocacy Service says, “The law’s not broken, the law has not been used.”
Maybe Judge Kazen’s visit here will be the catalyst for those leaders and elected officials who are directly involved in our criminal justice system to utilize the tools that are already in place instead of spending more time and resources on incarceration that fails to treat health issues that are often linked to recidivism. Otherwise the oxymoron of criminal justice becomes less humorous and sadly truthful.