Today, I have pre-trial hearings for two cases where my clients suffer from mental illness. Neither one of them was insane at the time of the offense, and both are currently competent to stand trial. But, both of them are in the criminal justice system in large part due to their respective mental illnesses. Cases like these are the most difficult for me to handle. Dealing with the problems of mental illness in the criminal justice system is often like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The real solutions to the problems these people are experiencing are not found in the penal system. Psychiatric treatment in county jails and state prison facilities is far from ideal, and often constitutes plain old malpractice. In addition, clients who are mentally ill, but competent, don't often have the best judgment when it comes to how to handle their legal cases. And despite the view of many people that serious mental illness lessens a criminal defendant's culpability, many jurors are afraid of the mentally ill, and have an inaccurate view of the danger they pose. As a result of these two things, the mentally ill often receive harsher punishment for committing the same crime than someone who is not mentally ill.
I don't really know what the solution to these problems are. Of course, more funding for mental health services is needed just about everywhere. I also support more divert programs for the mentally ill, where individuals can have their criminal cases dismiss if they "graduate" from a strictly supervised program of mental health treatment and don't commit any new crimes. But there will never be enough money for services or enough resources for diversion programs.
If anyone has any better ideas, I'd love to hear them.