January 19, 2008

Daryl Atkins, Lindsey Lohan, and the Cuckoo's Nest

This week has seen lots of interesting forensic news. A few highlights, with links:

Daryl Atkins' sentence commuted

On Thursday, more than five years after Daryl Atkins made legal history with a U.S. Supreme Court ban on executions of the mentally retarded, a judge commuted his death sentence to life in prison.

The reprieve came for reasons that few would have guessed during the ever twisting, nearly 12-year course of the case, which had focused largely on Atkins's mental limitations. Instead, it resulted from an allegation that prosecutors suppressed evidence prior to Atkins's murder trial in 1998.

The Washington Post has the story.

Cuckoo’s Nest still crazy

Most people know Oregon State Hospital only for the movie that it was based on, 1975's award-winning "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."

Well, it looks like Nurse Ratched never retired. A U.S. Justice Department report issued Wednesday cites numerous horror stories, including patient-on-patient assaults, outbreaks of infectious diseases, and a patient being held in seclusion without treatment for a year.

State officials said things have improved since the 2006 investigation, and that conditions at the crumbling, century-old psychiatric hospital are a symptom of years of neglect and underfunding of the entire public mental health system.

The Oregonian has the story. Also online are the federal report and a Pulitzer prize-winning series from the Oregonian, "Oregon’s Forgotten Hospital."

Better news from the other side of the country -
No more "hole" for mentally ill prisoners

On Tuesday, New York's legislature approved a landmark law to remove severely mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement in prison and place them in secure treatment facilities.

Prisons will also be required to conduct periodic mental health assessments of all prisoners in segregated or special housing units known as SHUs, where they are typically locked up for 23 to 24 hours a day.

New York has had more prisoners in segregated units for disciplinary purposes than any state. Confinement in tiny cells for 23 to 24 hours a day is known to seriously worsen psychiatric illnesses, which are suffered by large numbers of prisoners. (See my online essay on segregation psychosis for more on this topic.)

The governor is expected to sign the law, paving the way for construction of the new residential mental health units.

Newsday and the Poughkeepsie Journal have more.

Online registry for domestic violence?

In another example of the potentially endless expansion of symbolic laws, a California lawmaker has introduced a bill to develop an online database of domestic violence offenders, modeled after the popular sex offender databases.

Although the San Jose Mercury News is reporting this as the first such law proposed in the United States, I blogged last June about a similar effort in Pennsylvania.

Whatever state gets to it first, it's just another misguided, tough-on-crime attempt to get votes, in my opinion. Why?

First, it is costly and likely to divert funds from existing domestic violence programs that are already facing cutbacks. (This week's Boston Globe, for example, reports that women are waiting weeks for scarce beds in battered women's shelters, forcing them to return to their abusers and face greater danger.)

Second, as mentioned by a spokeswoman for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, a victims' advocacy group, women who have been wrongfully convicted of assaulting their abusers will likely find their names on the registry, creating further victimization.

Third, and most important in my opinion, is that these registries do more harm than good. They don't stop crime. All they do is stigmatize. The more they expand, the harder it is for people to get jobs, find housing, and be rehabilitated. And the number of candidate pools is endless: Drug offenders. Drunk drivers. Terrorists. Antiwar protesters. Traffic light violators.

The Mercury News has the story.

But what about Lindsey Lohan?

Oh yes, since I've been doing the celebrity blog thing lately, reporting on the Britney Spears-Phillip McGraw controversy, I must not neglect the innovative sentence handed down on Thursday to Ms. Lohan.

The L.A. courts have a program to show drivers the real-life consequences of drinking and driving. So as part of her sentence for misdemeanor drunk driving the 21-year-old actress must work at a morgue and a hospital emergency room for a couple of days each. I think it's a great idea. And maybe it will give her fodder for new acting roles. I'm rooting for her to get past all of this mess and get on with her promising career.

The Associated Press has the story.