Addicted, mentally ill and on their own

In 1998, my father, Moses Elmore, was murdered by Marvin Penick. Immediately prior to taking my dad’s life, Penick spent time in prison for assault, where he received little, if any, treatment for his drug addiction and mental illness, re-entering society seemingly no more stable than when he left.

Had Penick been diverted from prison into a treatment program, maybe he would have become be a thriving member of society today and my father would have lived to see his grandchildren grow up.

Instead, he is serving a sentence of 15 years to life.

My father was no fool and could defend himself. Even at nearly 70, when he was attacked, he was powerfully built and 6 feet tall. Born and raised in Harlem, he understood street life and the hardships faced by many African-American men and felt an obligation to lend a hand.

When friends asked, he did not hesitate to give Penick a job, though he knew about the man’s drug abuse and criminal record. Because of his recent prison release and addiction, my father paid Penick for half of the work and said the rest would be paid when the job was done. He figured this arrangement would reduce Penick’s ability to buy drugs.

My father knew all about drug addiction. At the time of his death, he had lost two sons, my younger brothers, to drug use and understood the consequential powerful cravings.

What he didn’t know when he hired Penick was the extent of his drug addition. Although Penick initially agreed to the pay arrangement my father set, at the end of his first day on the job, he bludgeoned my dad to death to collect the rest of his pay. For stepping in where government had failed, my father lost his life.

In this country, we criminalize drug addiction and mental illness. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated today, about half suffer from mental illness, and just over one-third of those individuals have a serious mental illness. Not only do we amorally criminalize disease, even under the best of circumstances, our criminal justice system often exacerbates the symptoms, leaving people more damaged than when they entered the system, and certainly no better.

I saw this process play out many times working as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn from 1987-1990, during the peak of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs — a war, it turns out, waged predominantly on poor communities.

Fortunately, even in the late 80s and 90s, some judges and DAs were beginning to see that diversion and treatment, instead of incarceration, resulted in better outcomes for defendants, saved taxpayers money, and, most importantly, made communities safer.

Even with a willingness to divert defendants to treatment, two factors often thwarted these early diversion efforts.

First, I found that many of my colleagues did not always understand the nature of substance-use disorders, mental illness and perhaps most importantly, the devastating and lifelong impact of childhood trauma fairly common in poor communities, where many of the defendants I saw grew up.

Secondly, even when diversion was offered, there were simply not enough treatment beds to accommodate the need.

Fortunately, due to an increasingly diverse workforce and training, the cultural divide in DAs’ offices has shrunk. However, the gap in beds remains, especially for those with serious mental illness and drug and alcohol problems.

The rush to close psychiatric hospital beds without adequate services is in large part to blame for the shift of this population from hospitals to jails and prisons. Rikers Island, New York City’s biggest jail complex, is full of mentally ill individuals.

We need more, not fewer, beds and more diversion options, including for those with serious mental illness who have committed felony-level crimes. When we encounter people with mental illness or substance use disorders that contribute to their offenses, we must first endeavor to treat them outside of the criminal justice system — so that people like Marvin Penick don’t go on to hurt others.

Elmore is a retired NBA and ABA basketball player, lawyer and sports commentator. He serves on the board of advisers to the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit seeking alternatives to incarceration.

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