General session: journalist Pete Earley explains what is wrong with mental health in the criminal justice system.

Author:Hedger, Joey
Position:ACA's 145th Congress of Correction: Aug. 14-19, 2015 - Conference notes

"I've come as a journalist and as an author, but I've really come as a father to talk to you today about mental illness and my story," began Pete Earley, the General Session keynote speaker at the American Correctional Association's 145th Congress of Correction on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. Earley is a former reporter for The Washington Post and renowned author of 12 nonfiction books, including "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness." His story started during a car ride from Manhattan to Fairfax County, Va., with his college-aged son, Kevin, who asked him, "Dad, how would you feel if someone you loved killed himself?"

A year earlier, Kevin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and he had stopped taking his medication. When Earley picked him up in New York, he had been wandering through the city for five days without sleep, convinced that God had him on a secret mission. Throughout Kevin's erratic behavior on the car ride home, he exclaimed that "pills are poison" and refused to take them. After waiting with Kevin at the emergency room for four hours, Earley described how the doctor came in "with his hands in the air as if he was surrendering," and said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Earley, I can't help your son." He hadn't even examined Kevin, but made it clear that he couldn't legally treat someone unless they posed a direct threat. He looked at Earley and said, "You seem like a decent father. I'll tell you what, you bring your son back after he tries to kill you or kill someone else."

Later, Kevin was arrested after slipping out of his own home, breaking into someone else's and taking a bubble bath. They brought him to a mental health center, and a police officer stopped Earley before going in to say, "Unless you go in and tell that psychiatrist that your son threatened to kill you, he will not be able to be admitted in to a hospital. We'll take him to jail, and you don't want that." So Earley regrettably lied in order to get his son admitted. But it wasn't over yet: The insurance company at first refused to pay, and Kevin was still charged with two felonies.

Finally, after Earley told his wife that he didn't know what to do, she suggested, "Why don't you do what you do best? Why don't you investigate this?" So he did some research. Earley found that about 40 percent of people with mental illnesses have some encounter with the criminal justice system. They are incarcerated four to eight times longer than others charged with the...

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