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RECIPE FOR DISASTER:When Mental Illness and the Judicial System Collide

The recent release of the would-be Cleveland High shooter sparked a wide range of emotions and reactions from the public, including shock, outrage, confusion, fear and concern. I can only imagine the fear and frustration of the children and parents of those children who were present last year on Valentine’s Day, when J.O. is alleged to have gone to school that fateful day with a fully loaded weapon and a plan and intent to kill particular students whom he had previously identified as his targets.The concern of one such parent was eloquently described in a recent article in the July 28th Issue of the Albuquerque Journal. Ex-girlfriend’s mom tells fear of Owen’s Release.”

This case is one where the system truly failed everyone. The story of J.O. (since the accused is a juvenile, I will use only his initials) is a tragic tale that highlights the glaring inadequacy of the way our society deals with mental health issues in general, and specifically when mental health and the judicial system collide. It is human to want to scapegoat; to hope that perhaps the judge, prosecutor, or defense attorney failed. However, it is important that we direct our ire appropriately, so we can ensure this doesn’t happen again. Here, the reality is that dedicated public servants ran headlong into a legal rabbit hole, which desperately needs legislative attention.

From the inception of the case, all parties were essentially seeking the same thing: to get J.O. the help he obviously and desperately needs to deal with his mental health issues while keeping the rest of the community safe. After several psychological evaluations, there was a clear consensus that this young man suffers from severe mental health issues. The prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge worked together throughout this case to find a solution that would treat J.O. and protect the community. In fact, after J.O. was found incompetent to stand trial, and the case dismissed as required by statute, the State sought and the Court ordered that J.O. be involuntarily committed for treatment. However, no juvenile treatment facilities in the state would accept him for treatment, despite the fact that there is a statute that allows for involuntary commitment in this situation. The problem is that the statute does not have any real teeth; it identifies no specific agency to oversee the placement, and does not mandate any treatment facility to accept a patient even if ordered to do so by a district judge. Unfortunately, in the end, all currently available options were exhausted and the judge had no choice under the law other than to dismiss the charges and release him from custody. The problem is funding and legislation.

Why give prosecutors and judges a statute which allows for inpatient treatment of dangerous juveniles—especially when we as a society should recognize the extreme dangers of mass school shootings—but then fail to create and fund a place where treatment can happen? Why enact a statute, but fail to mention what agency is responsible for a juvenile upon a commitment order? The system failed. It failed the State, it failed the community, and it failed J.O. and we live in a more dangerous world because of it. However, it is not enough to simply say “the system failed.” My hope is that this problem will be meaningfully addressed in the next general session of the legislature.

As your District Attorney, I will work with our state representatives to fight for legislative solutions to this recurring problem. Because, make no mistake, the story of J.O. is not unique, and without a legislative solution involving funding and oversight of treatment facilities, this is a tragic story that is bound to repeat. I will not sit idly by until God forbid, the worst happens and a would-be shooter becomes an active shooter.

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