Friday, February 29, 2008

EDITORIAL: Mental-Health Court – Yes; Remote Court TV – Maybe Not

President Judge Louis Farina and others deserve credit for exploring two innovations for the treatment of those accused of crimes.

According to the Feb. 29 Intelligencer Journal, Farina has "a court driven task force [which] plans to set up a mental-health court in Lancaster County." Clearly a large portion of prisoners, some estimate 20% to 25%, have mental health problems. Simply putting them behind bars isn't going to rehabilitate them. Perhaps, quite the contrary.

A sophisticated mental-health court may be able to come up with a way to improve their mental health, sometimes simply by having tests run and proper medicine prescribed. While incarceration may often be appropriate, it might not always be the best approach. In any case, it may be only part of a more holistic approach to rehabilitation.

The Intell also reports that the county wants to outfit District Judges with video conference equipment so that they can save money and add to safety by conducting hearings for prisoners who would be viewed from a special room at the county prison. Remote hearings would be limited to arraignments, summary charges for failing to pay fines, bench warrants, search warrants, arrest warrants, and emergency protection from abuse orders.

Here NewsLanc has concerns. First of all, dealing with prisoners from a remote location can be a slippery slope, with the practice expanded over time to far more complex matters with irremediable dire consequences. Secondly, we live in an age where Constitutional protections for prisoners are being whittled away, in large part in an effort to carry out the War on Drugs. (It was announced yesterday that US prisons now hold over 1.6 million prisoners!)

And lastly, somehow we don't feel that prisoners would be as able to express themselves when out of the physical presence of a judge. Their humanity is diminished by the television camera. And prisoners would be at the mercy of technicians who can show or not show them, allow them to speak or turn them off. Also they would be in a more intimidating environment.

Ask yourself: Would you feel more comfortable pleading your case in the physical presence of a judge where you appear as a full size, palpable human being, or would you be comfortable being perceived as an inanimate image on a screen, much like the Simpsons?

Democracy and human rights are not always inexpensive.