This morning, as I was on my laptop, an e-mail came across my screen:
“Laurie, I’m afraid I have some terrible news…our son took his own life yesterday….I thought you should know, as he cared very much about you (as do I).”
Their son was my client. As I endured the initial stun and shock, the tears began. I let out a good, long cry, not only for this client, but for my many other clients whose voices are not heard, rather silenced by those who hold power over them and fail to use it for good. Memories of my client began pouring through my head; his struggles with severe anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions, a brain injury, and drug addiction. He was in and out of college and, despite all of the trouble he underwent, wanted to have a career and independence. I recalled
the long talks that we had and how I always tried to support him and show him that I truly cared about his wellness, to instill in him the idea that he mattered.
My client had just turned 34-years-old last month. When he was 21, he was in a tragic car accident that resulted in the death of his passenger, his arrest for Homicide by Vehicle and DUI, and ultimately a Traumatic Brain Injury and a significant worsening of his anxiety. After serving some time in state prison, he came home to a period of parole and probation, as well as the loss of his driver’s license for an extended amount of time. Most recently, he was trying to get his life together. He sought out medical and mental health care, worked, and attended college. He loved music and strived to have a career related to this passion. He had a very good heart and was always kind. He was appreciative of all that I did for him.
The criminal justice system failed him. Even while I was able to assist him with a civil rights case that we brought against a local prison’s medical department for their failure to properly wean him off of his anxiety medication, he still continued to suffer from being unable to move forward with his life. His independence was compromised by his remaining license suspension, which had been in effect for the last twelve years, since his arrest for Homicide by Vehicle. Still, right before he passed away, an administrative agency refused to restore his license and he faced having to wait even longer to drive. His mental health issues and drug addiction also held him back from achieving all I knew he was capable of.
I care deeply for my clients. They become family. Although I am prideful of this empathetic quality, it unfortunately can manifest in my carrying their disappointments and setbacks heavy in my heart. This suicide weighs painfully on me as I reflect on what could have been done to help my client. Sometimes, punishments that are applied rigidly to keep the community safe—such as Driver’s License suspensions and long jail sentences—do not sufficiently consider the well-being of the person against whom they are imposed. Then, for my clients who are all-too-quickly deemed dangerous, safety is the exact opposite of what is being enforced. Death, physical injury, worsening of mental illness and drug addiction are consequences of their unaddressed struggles.
The goals of the criminal justice system should equally consider the well-being of the person being punished as well as the safety of the community. Another client of mine, who is currently incarcerated at a local prison and whose medical department is neglecting to take her to an orthopedic specialist for two broken bones in her leg, is in extreme danger of permanent damage to her limb and her mental state. The most recent Judge in front of whom we appeared refused to release her for outside medical treatment due to her history of absconding and arrests for drug use. While this may be a ‘good’ result for the safety of the community, what is wrong
with a just decision to release my client to obtain treatment which addresses her safety? She could be placed on house arrest, monitored, and then returned to prison after she receives critical and life-saving medical care; a good middle ground considering the safety of all.
Another client with special needs, convicted of downloading pornography, is unnecessarily suffering because the state prison’s medical department refuses to give him his prescribed ADHD medication, something that he needs to understand the sex offender classes that he is required to complete. Sure, the community is ‘safe’ on paper, but if the offender can’t comprehend and understand what the classes are teaching, what is the point? This is another
example of the criminal justice system’s failure to make choices that consider the needs of the offender and the community.
I hope and pray that I never receive news like this again. To the judges, prison officials, probation officers, state parole officials, and others who hold power and influence in our criminal justice system: please get to know the men, women, and children whom you supervise. They are all human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, care, and compassion. My client mattered. His life mattered. May his life and my message make a difference in the future of our criminal justice system.