I have a patient who carries a conviction for a very serious felony. In 2001, he was convicted, and given probation and a suspended sentence. During his 18 months in jail awaiting a resolution, he was found to be psychotic and was treated with medication, which was gradually reduced. The treatment staff in the jail determined that he was psychotic due to heavy drug use in the years (and days) prior to his being incarcerated.
In his youth, he was not a choir boy. During the years leading up to the felony charge, he was arrested on four occasions, charged with offenses ranging from loitering to second- degree assault. Most cases were dismissed or led to acquittal, but he did on one occasion receive a probation before judgment for discharging a weapon illegally. All of these charges related to his drug abuse and probable addiction.
I first met him at the request of his probation agent, shortly after his release from jail in 2001. She was concerned both because of his history and his somewhat odd presentation. After working with him for several months, I concluded that the jail staff were correct: his mental disorder was directly related to, and probably caused by, his drug use. We have worked together closely ever since, and he has refrained not only from using illicit drugs and alcohol, but in fact has learned that his brain is adversely affected even by certain over-the-counter or herbal medications and has avoided these as well.
But, of course, now he has a record. Like a weight hanging from him, this history – one incident lasting no more than a few minutes! – interferes with his ability find work. Many employers opt not to hire someone like him. Fortunately, he has the strong support of family, who assist him with his needs and help him find work – even hiring him themselves at times. During the decade in which I have worked with him, he has married, divorced, celebrated his religious rites, dealt with several episodes of illness and hospitalizations.
But one thing he has been unable to do is to find consistent work that would allow him to support himself. Many times, he has sought employment only to be turned away due to his record.
Is it true that this man has had problems? Yes. Was he found guilty for a serious crime? Yes. But is it not equally true that, with help, support and ongoing treatment, he has been a good citizen now for over 10 years? Why is it that our society does not understand that people change, that they can be rehabilitated, even though our criminal justice system has abandoned rehabilitation as one of its goals?