Maybe we've been framing the argument the wrong way. The media has presented society's neglect and general disregard of the plight of the mentally ill as as something quite devastating for those pathetic, lost souls wandering through our city streets in constant conversation with the voices in their head.
We appealed to society's better angels. The mentally ill, many of them homeless or nearly so, were pitiable victims of our neglect. A broken promise. When the U.S. began downsizing state mental hospitals in the 1950s, eliminating three-fourths of their occupants, turning out 560,000 patients by 1977, the promise was that they would be looked after in community treatment centers, most of them as out-patients. They would be beneficiaries of the new, stabilizing drugs that would enable most mentally ill patients to function as normal citizens.
We broke that promise. Out-patient treatment has never been fully funded. And the problem with the theory of normal functions was the occasional tendency of the mentally ill, once they've been stabilized by their regime of drugs (which often have unpleasant side effects), they figure, "Hey. I'm normal. I don't need these pills."
They wonder the streets, confused and pathetic, walking symbols of societal neglect. And often the easy target of criminals.
There's another price paid for this negligence. Not one the press has pursued with much enthusiasm. On June 10, a 25-year-old man with a long criminal record was arrested for the rape of a 20-year-old woman in Fort Lauderdale. George Pierre was charged with armed sexual battery, false imprisonment, armed burglary with a battery, aggravated assault and giving a false name to officers.
Pierre's arrest record reaches back a dozen years. He was already wanted for a parole violation. But the problem was that Pierre is mentally ill. The most serious charge against him, a drug trafficking rap, had been dropped when a judge found him mentally incompetent.
Pierre was in a legal netherworld. Clearly, he belonged in a secure institution. But he could not be confined unless he was a clear and immediate danger to himself and others. He was a danger to others. But it was the nebulous "immediate" requirement that kept him on the streets. That and our insane failure to provide aggressive treatment programs for the mentally ill.
The tragedy of neglect isn't just about the mentally ill. Studies in Britain and Sweden attributed about five percent of violent crimes to the mentally ill. A U.S. study found the mentally ill commit about 1,000 murders a year. While the mentally ill are 2.5 times more likely than other segments of society to be the victims of violent crimes, the small percentage of crimes they commit have real victims.
The life of a 20-year-old woman in Fort Lauderdale was violently altered. She too is a victim of our shameful disregard.