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The Mind of Kalebu
September 24, 2009 4:28 PM   Subscribe

Why are people like Isaiah Kalebu—people diagnosed with serious psychological problems and accused of violent crimes—allowed to remain free until trial?

In the 16 months before he allegedly killed Teresa Butz, Isaiah Kalebu was accused of threatening to kill his mother, investigated for a suspicious fire that killed his aunt, and warned that he needed to stay on his meds. Sealed and unsealed court documents obtained by The Stranger paint a terrifying portrait of the psyche of the suspected murderer—and reveal major loopholes in the way mentally unstable criminal suspects move through the legal system.

By the Stranger's talented senior staff writer Eli Sanders.
posted by KokuRyu (34 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh please. Can we stop with the stupid Daily Mail esque faux questions: Should Raping Whales Be Illegal? Do Mexicans Cause Cancer? Why not go with an honest SEATTLE! WE NEED TO LOCKUP NUTJOBS! COMPRENDRE?
posted by Damienmce at 4:38 PM on September 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is an old and familiar cycle to anyone who's worked with psychiatric patients:

1) Person with mental or emotional problems is medicated, problems seem to disappear.

2) Person now insists that there was never a problem in the first place, doesn't keep on their meds because they don't like the side effects (or, specifically if they're bipolar, because they miss the manic "high").

3) Person goes off the meds, problem comes back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Deinstitutionalization was a disaster that has never been adequately dealt with.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:45 PM on September 24, 2009 [10 favorites]


P.S. In case it needs to be said: no, that doesn't happen with all psychiatric patients, and I wasn't talking about you. But it is a chronic problem, and the tiny percentage of people that it does happen to cause problems all out of proportion to their numbers.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:47 PM on September 24, 2009


Why are people like Isaiah Kalebu—people diagnosed with serious psychological problems and accused of violent crimes—allowed to remain free until trial?

Because the American legal system has as its foundation the belief that people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Because we believe that the rights enumerated in the Constitution apply to the mentally ill as much as they do to the rest of us. Because the U.S. does not have a Bureau of Precrime (yet).

These are good things, not bad things. What happened was tragic and awful, but is the suggestion here really that we fundamentally alter the fabric of the American system of law and justice? Because that doesn't sound like particularly wise unless your fondest desire is to live in a science fiction dystopia.
posted by dersins at 4:47 PM on September 24, 2009 [9 favorites]


Politically, The Stranger is about as far from the Daily Mail as you can get. There are major, major problems with the way the criminal justice system handles mental illness in America.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:48 PM on September 24, 2009


There are major, major problems with the way the criminal justice system handles mental illness in America.

Like treating it as some sort of lifestyle choice that cannot be atoned or excused and punishing those who suffer from it via the penal system instead of treating it?

It's not just America that fucks that one up.
posted by Talez at 4:55 PM on September 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


Politically, The Stranger is about as far from the Daily Mail as you can get.

Hmm. But not entirely dissimilar in terms of sensationalism or putting opinion before fact when chasing a particular bette noir.
posted by Artw at 4:56 PM on September 24, 2009


There are major, major problems with the way the criminal justice system handles mental illness in America.

This is completely, one hundred percent true. On the other hand, the problems are incredibly complex, and come from all possible angles. You've got incidents like this one, where a (probably) dangerous mentally ill individual is not recognized as dangerous. You've also got the (exponentially greater) problem of the mentally ill individuals who spent their time alternating between the street and the jail, spending their free days self medicating, which inevitably lands them back behind bars. Even when it's caught that they're mentally ill, this frequently means time in a state hospital, which is better than jail, though not by much. If the charges are minor, it can even be worse, because the time you can spend in the hospital awaiting regained competency can be quite long.

Just three days earlier, Kalebu had missed a scheduled court appearance, probably because of the arson investigation, and Hostetter had asked for—and been denied by Judge Gain—a bench warrant for his arrest.)

Although in this case, this decision was probably the wrong one, I don't think we want to be encouraging every judge to issue a bench warrant every time a mentally ill person fails to appear. Asking a person who can easily become disoriented as to what day or time it is to make a court appearance is almost unfair. I'm not sure what the solution is, but the traditional model of "pre-trial release/strict compliance with conditions, and coming to court" does NOT work with many of the mentally ill.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:03 PM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


" is the suggestion here really that we fundamentally alter the fabric of the American system of law and justice?"

I think the suggestion would really be that we fundamentally alter the fabric of the American medical system.
posted by brina at 5:07 PM on September 24, 2009


Eli Sanders appeared on the the TBTL podcast today to talk about his article (fast forward to 65:30 for the interview, the interview lasts about 20 minutes).
posted by mhum at 5:09 PM on September 24, 2009


Why are people like Isaiah Kalebu—people diagnosed with serious psychological problems and accused of violent crimes—allowed to remain free until trial?

I am deeply disturbed by the idea that someone would even ask this.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:11 PM on September 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


Dersins, I don't think it would be a science-fiction dystopia for a rushed prosecutor to know going into court that the person whose status was being decided was considered to be of interest in the death by fire of his caregiver, or that such a significant incident had occurred even if he was not a suspect at all. Nor is it dystopian to fund and run better mental health services which might offer a middle ground between involuntary commitment for the most dangerously insane and unsupervised release.

Everyone in this story is badly off as a result of these institutional failures. Much, perhaps most of this was avoidable, not inevitable. It's not just an issue of innocent until proven guilty, but whether someone is danger to themselves and others. That is a real issue for a small number of people, who are sick and need help, and the story highlights a lack of sufficient resources for either treatment or monitoring.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:12 PM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Should Raping Whales Be Illegal?

Do Mexicans Cause Cancer?"


Yes, as whales cannot currently consent to sex with humans.

Mexicans per se, no. Mexican food? Certainly the enchiladas I made tonight may be the cause of future ass cancer, yes.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 6:02 PM on September 24, 2009


Pope Guilty: " [[Why are people like Isaiah Kalebu—people diagnosed with serious psychological problems and accused of violent crimes—allowed to remain free until trial?]]

I am deeply disturbed by the idea that someone would even ask this.
"

That.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:29 PM on September 24, 2009


Slightly different question: Why are people not diagnosed with serious psychological problems and accused of violent crimes allowed to remain free until trial?

Same answer.
posted by rokusan at 6:33 PM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Er, if you're charged with a crime, you don't actually have a right to run around free. In fact, even if you're not crazy, you can still end up being locked up before trial, especially in the case of a violent crime.

That's why you have to pay bail and be put on probation. If the judge thinks you would be flight risk, then then you will have to be put in jail.

Given the fact that a completely sane person could be locked up before trial, it's not all that clear why someone mental problems could also be.
posted by delmoi at 6:46 PM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


An estimated 26.2 percent of adults in America suffer from a mental disorder in a given year. While they're mostly "non-serious" disorders, the idea of writing laws to remove civil liberties from those with mental health issues just seems like a really really bad idea, because it could catch so many innocent people.

And there's also the fact that it provides disincentives for those who might otherwise seek counseling help when they need it. We're slowly removing the stigma of mental health disorders in this country. This would reverse decades of advancement.
posted by formless at 7:00 PM on September 24, 2009


An estimated 26.2 percent of adults in America suffer from a mental disorder in a given year. While they're mostly "non-serious" disorders, the idea of writing laws to remove civil liberties from those with mental health issues just seems like a really really bad idea, because it could catch so many innocent people.

The article does not advocate rewriting legislation to make it easier to incarcerate mentally ill people.

The point of the article is that different agencies had different bits of information about Kalebu, but that that information was not shared, and, due to technology, was not able to be shared.

The point is that the justice system needs to do a better job connecting the dots so this sort of tragedy doesn't happen again - so that existing laws can be enforced better.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:10 PM on September 24, 2009


This is why we need unified medical / criminal / credit records.
posted by ryanrs at 7:32 PM on September 24, 2009


"Yeah, your left tail-light is out, and you're four days overdue on your last Visa payment. Step out of the car, citizen."
posted by rokusan at 7:47 PM on September 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm tired as I had a long day today preparing for court next week, so maybe I can read this a little more closely tomorrow and comment more substantively but as someone who manages a mental health caseload in the criminal justice system I was troubled early on when he blames the system for missing multiple opportunities to "detain and effectively treat" this person. You don't do both, you do one or the other. Effective treatment focuses on social integration and symptom management and takes place in the community, behavioral control that focuses on maintaining the safety of correctional staff is what happens in detention. This is a problem with journalists, even good journalists, who pick up a token mental health story. They don't understand the fundamentals of treatment provision. It doesn't happen in detention, it happens when and only when someone willingly engages in the community.
posted by The Straightener at 7:55 PM on September 24, 2009


The article is really well-written and even brings up the "innocent until proven guilty" argument in a fair way, directly after the rhetorical question quoted in the FPP. Please stop assuming it suggests locking up all the mentally ill until the end of time, just in case.
Dr. Murray Hart, of Western State Hospital, said there's an obvious reason judges continue, despite the failings of the current system, to let people like Kalebu go free pending trial.

"It must work," Hart said. "If it was a total failure all the time, courts wouldn't do it... An awful lot of people are put out on personal recognizance and don't get back into trouble."

But, Hart admitted, there are some total failures.

"I would imagine this is such a case," he said.

Judges, Hart said, have a responsibility to consider the entire case history before releasing a psychologically unstable defendant. "We would hope that the courts who put these people out on these conditions, that they would appreciate the data that they have at their disposal," Hart said. "I'm not sure they always do."

Once defendants like Kalebu are released, there's no organized program for monitoring them.
In essence, the article winds up arguing for a more comprehensive monitoring system, with better information sharing--the antique computer that the prosecutor had being the piece of key evidence, and just doing a better job of respecting individual rights as well as public safety. Heck, the paragraph directly above the section I quoted all but sings the praises of release-and-monitoring, in countries that can do it well.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:58 PM on September 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


My obtuse point was that the entire "mentally ill" aspect is a red herring. The danger a suspect may or may not pose to the public can be calculated either way.

Thousands of "mentally well" suspects are released and commit additional crimes, or flee; the mentally ill aren't special in this regard.
posted by rokusan at 8:14 PM on September 24, 2009


I've met the woman who handles the parole and probation mental health monitoring caseload in Philly, including pre-trial cases. She refers to her parolees as "my retards." Again, parole and probation is only about treatment if a judge puts and order to treatment in place, then it's simply about monitoring compliance in order to determine if there's a violation. They are law enforcement officers, and think like law enforcement officers. They are not interested in mental health treatment provision, they are not social workers.

The criminal justice system as it exists today is designed to enforce the law and ensure public safety. There are mental health courts that operate on the drug court model the court I work with uses, and these are trying to bridge the gap between the criminal justice system and treatment communities to ensure public safety and try to treat the client at the same time. But honestly, I'm not even sure this dude would have qualified for a program like that, at least the one in Philly that's just rolling out is not taking dudes this severely treatment noncompliant and violent. So he might not have even been appropriate for a criminal justice program that enforces compliance with mental health treatment as a stipulation of parole or plea agreement. Which means dude should have been in jail or the state hospital system, because he is simply too great a risk to public safety not to be. And there he likely would not have been sucessfully treated, but at least the person he murdered would still be alive.

These are incredibly dicey decisions, no matter how you slice it, even in a perfect system. The system, as you are aware, is way far from perfect, though there is a tiny, tiny bit of movement in the right direction happening in certain counties.
posted by The Straightener at 8:16 PM on September 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thousands of "mentally well" suspects are released and commit additional crimes, or flee; the mentally ill aren't special in this regard.

Yeah, but in this case it was easy to be able to predict (and it was predicted) that Kalebu would be a risk to society, and yet he was released.

Plus, it could be argued that the folks who are released and commit the sort of crimes Kalebu did all suffer from mental illness in some way. "Mentally well" people don't commit these sorts of crimes.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:48 PM on September 24, 2009


But that's not to say that all mentally ill people commit crimes.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:49 PM on September 24, 2009


Plus, it could be argued that the folks who are released and commit the sort of crimes Kalebu did all suffer from mental illness in some way. "Mentally well" people don't commit these sorts of crimes.

Lots of "mentally well" people commit these sorts of crimes. Do you think the mafia is comprised entirely of people who are mentally ill?
posted by Talez at 9:20 PM on September 24, 2009


Why are people like Isaiah Kalebu—people diagnosed with serious psychological problems and accused of violent crimes—allowed to remain free until trial?

I'm speaking from what I know about the way things work in D.C., but...

Because our criminal justice system is grounded in the concept that a defendant be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Because the exceptions which permit a magistrate to hold a defendant pending trial require a showing that the defendant pose a serious (read: really high standard) risk of flight, high danger to themselves or society (another high standard, with strict legal parameters relating to the nature of the offense and propensity for the charge and subsequent release themselves to give rise to future crimes) or else a violation of current status (i.e., on probation, parole, or otherwise supervised release pending trial.)

Because psychological problems are not correlative with greater danger under my second listed exception, just as they don't map over criminality with any significant value.

Because the mental health programs for indigent defendants in the U.S. are 100% broken and everyone in the system, save for those willfully ignorant, knows it.

Because these decisions are made at arraignment, where commitment is based upon "competency hearings," which judge the defendant's ability to understand the charges against them and to communicate with counsel.

Because every defense attorney knows that to lose at a competency hearing is to have their client committed indefinitely with limited, shoddy, and often corrupt oversight, while that client loses more rights than they would with a lifetime sentence, and as such this result is preferable literally only to the death penalty.

Because hindsight is 20/20 and magistrates don't have access to time machines.

Do we need further reasons? I'm sure I could think of some.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:06 PM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Like treating it as some sort of lifestyle choice that cannot be atoned or excused and punishing those who suffer from it via the penal system

The Sociopath Next Door - Martha Stout. 4% of the population fits this bill.
We are accustomed to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but in The Sociopath Next Door, Harvard psychologist Martha Stout reveals that a shocking 4 percent of ordinary people

Remember - these people become your 'leaders' - bosses, CEOs, political hacks.
What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:52 AM on September 25, 2009


the idea of writing laws to remove civil liberties from those with mental health issues just seems like a really really bad idea,

Ohhh, look! It's got its own Wiki page
posted by rough ashlar at 7:57 AM on September 25, 2009


This is why we need unified medical / criminal / credit records.

Right, because databases flagging others have worked so well with the suspect terrorist list.

And, creditors *NEVER* make mistakes, nor use the credit system to extort payments.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:01 AM on September 25, 2009


If Pierce and King Counties had unified criminal records, perhaps Teresa Butz would be alive today. As with Philip Garrido's falling through the cracks, we have too many law and order jurisdictions in the USA and too little communication between them.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:41 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is why we need unified medical / criminal / credit records.
Right, because databases flagging others have worked so well with the suspect terrorist list.


Pretty sure he was kidding there, ash.
posted by rokusan at 12:15 PM on September 25, 2009


Do Mexicans Cause Cancer?

Of course not. Don't be silly.

Swedes cause cancer.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:48 PM on September 26, 2009


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