Saturday, March 3, 2012

On providing invited testimony in a legislative hearing

Reflections of a forensic psychologist

Floyd L. Jennings, JD, PhD, a clinical psychologist and attorney with a long-time clinical practice, currently works in county government to address the problems of the chronically mentally ill in the criminal justice system. In this capacity, he testified this week before a state legislative committee. Here, he reflects on that experience:

As special resource counsel to the Mental Health Division of the Harris County Public Defender (Houston, Texas), I was asked to provide testimony to the Texas House Subcommittee on Criminal Jurisprudence -- and did so on 29 February 2012.

For those having a history of legislative contact, serving as a witness in a hearing may be not at all discomforting. But to one for whom it was a new experience it was quite different.

First, the charge of the committee was to address whether alternative sentencing for mentally ill persons would be desirable. I argued simply that no changes in sentencing were needed -- because it would be difficult to craft, impossible to implement as it would trade on definitions of applicability, and moreover, courts already have the option of considering a defendant's state of mind as either mitigating or exculpating. 

On the other hand, diversion strategies for the lower-level misdemeanor offender could have enormous cost benefits and not compromise public safety. As well, pre-trial jail psychiatric services could be provided at modest direct cost through the use of physician extenders, and provide just that opportunity for stabilization necessary to enable rapid disposition of the matter, shortening any period of confinement. Finally, I argued that opportunities for post-disposition placement tiered to the acuity of the person would dramatically reduce recidivism.

Second, the affective dimensions of proffering testimony are profound -- the setting is elegant and the committee is seated above the witness much like justices in a supreme court. Witnesses are presented with questions for which there are often no easy answers, but to which some response must be made. My case was no exception.

Third, I learned that the lucidity of the argument may have little consequence. I was upbraided for failing to provide the legislature with specific means of cost savings through transfer of mental health services to the "private sector", although there is no private sector entity with the duty to provide mental health services to the chronically mentally ill on a statewide basis. And even if existing, no private sector entity has the resources to provide such. The tone of questions made it plain that legislators would prefer to have government provide all the goods and services that governments rightly provide, but at no cost, or with private sector funding.

Fourth, the venue of a public hearing is no occasion for stirring rhetoric or confrontation. I felt I should have reminded the committee that the present moment is not the occasion for abandonment of those functions which are uniquely governmental -- the care of the weakest members of society who are ill equipped to care for themselves. But in retrospect, and having viewed the videotape of the proceeding, it was far the better to have remained on task, and narrowly focused upon the committee's charge.

Finally, the message for psychologists, and mental health providers in general, is multifold: Involvement in the legislative process is to venture into unfamiliar and discomforting territory. However, social change is rarely achieved in a sterile environment, or one involving only warm and supportive exchanges. Moreover, to call upon governmental entities to fulfill their statutory duty as well as higher moral purpose, it to expose oneself to a certain amount of discord. In short, it goes with the territory. 

Would I do it again? 

I hope so, because in the course of the day I realized there were many I knew personally who were also participating in the process and there is also something rewarding about believing that perhaps you touched even one person having decision-making power to effectuate change.

The video of Dr. Jennings’ testimony is online HERE (beginning at 1:44:50).

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