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MARCH 2016 - Mental Illness
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Clients with Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System

by Dani Glazer

I am currently a third year law student at Duke Law School.  Before law school, I had witnessed from a family member’s personal experience how a mental illness can make it even more difficult to navigate the criminal justice system.  Once, a social worker suggested intentionally getting that family member arrested, because it was the only sure way to get access to mental health treatment.  We did not take the advice, but although we found an alternative, it was difficult, expensive, and ultimately not very effective.  The social worker’s suggestion stuck with me, because it seemed so ridiculous, but it came from someone with decades of experience. To me, that meant that either the system was irrevocably broken, or even those with experience struggled to navigate it effectively.  Trying to take the less cynical view, I entered law school searching for solutions.

During my first year at Duke, I began working with the local North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  I helped them produce a guide book for criminal defense attorneys that helped explain how mental illness would make their job more complicated and difficult.  In turn, this guide book was based on a manual created by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit group in Texas.  It was such a great project that I quickly saw the need for its application in other states.  As a recipient of the Public Interest Grant from the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles Foundation (WLALA), I was able to expand on Texas Appleseed’s and NAMI’s guide books by developing a third version for California defense attorneys. 

My guide book is very similar to Texas Appleseed’s and NAMI’s in both structure and content, but it is tailored to California.  It includes relevant California case law and statutes, as well as resources unique to California, such as local mental health hospitals and other organizations.  Since it is a long guide book that many overworked attorneys may not have time to read, there is a “Top Ten Things to Keep in Mind” section before the introduction that covers the basics of representing a client with a mental illness. Then the following six sections explain how mental illness will affect a criminal case, what to do in interviewing the client, investigating the case, and preparing for (and trying to avoid) trial. The last section presents examples of poorly handled criminal cases, where police officers were insufficiently trained or attorneys did not know how to effectively handle a mentally ill client’s case.  The goal is to demonstrate to attorneys why extra effort and care is necessary when a client has a mental illness.  There is also an appendix with hyperlinks to external resources for quick access and future use.  The guide book is meant to function either as a textbook, read all at once, or as a reference for guidance as needed.

Creating this manual allowed me to step outside the law school and produce written work that will be useful and practical.  In law school, most written work is analytical and theoretical in nature, while most of law practice is much more practical.  I plan to be a transactional attorney, and as such I will likely write manuals, emails, client letters, and PowerPoint presentations much more often than I write white papers, so this is excellent practice for the future.  It was also an opportunity to work on something I care deeply about and feel is tremendously important.

I am very happy to have worked with NAMI and WLALA.  With their guidance and funding, I convinced myself that our criminal justice system is not irrevocably broken.  To clarify, it is broken, but not irrevocably so.  With organizations like these working and encouraging others to find solutions, there is hope for the future. 



Danielle Glazer is a law student at Duke Law in North Carolina.  She became interested in mental health issues and how they relate to the legal system when her brother was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  The legal issues that accompanied her brother's mental ill-health motivated her to create a manual for criminal defense attorneys detailing the complicated laws protecting and affecting adults with mental illness, as well as methods for dealing with clients who have mental illnesses.  Dani spent the past summer as an intern for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, where she learned from experienced and knowledgeable attorneys about mental health issues and how they intersect with criminal law in California, particularly when a client is facing the death penalty.  Dani also worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to create and distribute the manual.