No One Wins When Courts Skip Steps for Mental Illnesses under NC Law

No One Wins When Courts Skip Steps for Mental Illnesses under NC Law

The interaction between the justice system and mental illnesses isn’t a perfect one. As folks continue trying to take mental health more seriously, lawmakers are doing the same.

In North Carolina, for example, lawmakers imposed requirements to ensure that court proceedings have to at least consider mental illnesses. But what happens when courts don’t meet those requirements?

A recent Court of Appeals opinion illustrates that the answer to that question is never clear.

Amber suffered from several mental illnesses, and a Gaston County judge placed her in a detention facility.

At the time of the case, “Amber” (a pseudonym used by the Court of Appeals) was 15 years old and suffered from PTSD, depressive disorder and unspecified disruptive, impulse-control and conduct disorders.

Amber’s father kicked her out of the home after several instances of domestic violence and alcohol abuse. Amber moved to her mother’s home, but her mother eventually turned Amber over to the Gaston County Department of Social Services after dealing with her own mental-health issues.

After six escapes from youth foster and group homes, five vehicle thefts and a removal of an ankle monitoring device, a hearing was scheduled before Gaston County District Court Judge Michael K. Lands about Amber’s placement.

In the case, the government asked Judge Lands to place Amber into a youth detention center. Amber’s counsel, on the other hand, wanted her placed in a psychiatric residential treatment facility.

Ultimately, Judge Lands accepted the government’s argument and placed Amber in the juvenile division of an adult correction youth development center.

But the judge failed to comply with an NC law requiring a mental-health referral.

Before Judge Lands placed Amber in the detention facility, though, NC law required a referral mental-health services.

Specifically, NC Gen. Stat. § 7B-2502(c) requires that, “[i]f … there is evidence presented to the effect that the juvenile is mentally ill or is developmentally disabled, the court shall refer the juvenile to the area mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services director for appropriate action….”

The statute then requires the area’s mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services director to “arrang[e] an interdisciplinary evaluation of the juvenile and mobilizing resources to meet the juvenile’s needs.”

Amber appealed Judge Lands’ decision, specifically taking issue with his failure to comply with NC Gen. Stat. § 7B-2502(c).

In a divided opinion, the NC Court of Appeals vacated the placement for failing to comply with the statute.

In a 2-1 opinion, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed Judge Lands’ placement decision.

Judge Lucy Inman, writing for the majority, emphasized the statute’s use of the word “shall.” “[T]he word ‘shall’ indicates a statutory mandate that the trial court refer the juvenile to the area mental health services director for appropriate action,” she explained.

The majority also rejected the prosecution’s argument that, even with the statute violation, Judge Lands’ order should stand because Amber couldn’t “show prejudice,” i.e., that the failure made a difference. According to the majority, it’s possible that the statute violation could have made a difference in the case.

Judge Allegra Collins concurred with Judge Inman’s opinion.

Mental illnesses have to be taken seriously.
Image courtesy of Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

One Court of Appeals judge disagreed, though.

Judge Philip Berger, Jr., disagreed. According to him, “the juvenile … failed to show that she was prejudiced by” the statutory violation. In his view, the fact that Judge Lands violated NC Gen. Stat. § 7B-2502(c) was largely inconsequential to the outcome of the case.

According to him, the majority’s decision will merely “send this case back” for Judge Lands for the same decision. And, in Judge Burger’s view, there were only two options: place Amber in “a secure YDC facility” or “an in-patient treatment facility” with “lax security.”

For the majority, though, the record didn’t support this criticism. “[W]e are unconvinced that remand would simply have the trial court ‘receive and consider the same information it has already heard’ based on a close examination of the record below, Judge Inman wrote.” 

Judge Inman also pointed out “that there was no testimony as to whether the ‘interdisciplinary evaluation . . . and mobiliz[ation of] resources’ required by the statute is the same as or equivalent to the coordinated care assessment Amber had received” so far. Therefore, she wrote, “any conclusion to that effect [is] conjecture.”

With hundreds of thousands of people with mental illnesses behind bars, court compliance with mental-health laws is crucial.

As you read this, there’s approximately a half million people with serious mental illnesses sitting in jails and prisons in the U.S. The good news is that this number only represents around 5% of the 10 million people suffering from mental illnesses nationwide. But 500,000 still isn’t a small number.

The numbers are even more staggering for juveniles. Some studies indicate that more than half — between 50% and 75% — of juveniles who encounter the justice system meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental illness.

Laws like NC Gen. Stat. § 7B-2502(c) create necessary steps to help keep the justice system from sweeping mental illnesses under the rug. And North Carolina’s courts make it clear that the statute applies if there is “any evidence” of a mental illness. But that step is only effective when taken. The majority opinion in this case made sure that no judge skipped that step.

To read more about other decisions from North Carolina’s appellate courts, visit our Law section! And to learn more about how mental-health and other illnesses impact North Carolina, check out our Health section!