The Supreme Court only receives the cream of the huge crop of moral dilemmas. Out of thousands of petitions received each year, the justices are briefed on less than a hundred. That is why, when they do make a decision, America listens. This Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to take on the case Hall v. Florida. They will lay down the law (literally) and clarify the legal procedure for how mental disabilities are dealt with in court. Freddie Hall, a Florida inmate, is guilty of abducting and murdering a woman in 1978. He has organic brain damage and other mental disabilities, but was still given the death sentence because of the severity of his crime and its premeditated nature. In 2002, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty was a cruel and unusual punishment for the mentally disabled. Florida, like several other states, uses a hard line to determine whether an individual is mentally disabled in the eyes of the law: an IQ score. Hall scored a seventy-one (the average IQ for any individual is one hundred), only one point above the cut off of seventy, therefore qualifying him for the death sentence.
Leaving aside debates regarding capital punishment, Hall v. Florida brings up a huge moral dilemma. How can a court determine an individual mentally disabled at the time of conviction and yet deem him completely able now? This lack of clarity is why the Supreme Court will take on the case in February.
Some courts agree, and are in the process of making changes accordingly. Mental health is an overwhelming problem in our over-burdened court system. In the general population, about 6% of people suffer from serious mental illness. In prisons, over 60% of inmates have current or recent mental health problems. These people tend to cycle in and out of prison systems, at both great personal cost and expense to the government. In an effort to break this cycle, some counties are trying out separate “mental health courts”. They are related to the traditional courts in the same way as juvenile court; all three courts deal with similar crimes, but involving people with different circumstances. So far, they seem to be working.
In New England, Hillsborough County saved over $350,000 over two years by implementing mental health courts. They deal primarily with non-violent crimes. Offenders can avoid charges if they get help with their disorders through counseling or another form of healing. Upon graduating from therapy or an equivalent service, their slate is wiped clean. In Hillsborough, 834 people were helped between 2010 and 2012, and the county received a grant to expand the new system. The new system encourages collaboration, both between the court systems and between courts and mental health professionals.
By removing criminals with mental health problems from the traditional court system, the US judicial system is starting to recognize that there is no blanket solution to deal with every kind of person comes through a courthouse. As awareness for mental illness grows, hopefully our understanding of individuals suffering from these conditions does too. In order to adapt to and accept the new information, many aspects of society must undergo change. The court systems are only the beginning.
Article by Maya Roy