The Travis County Mental Health Public Defender office provides legal representation to indigent mentally ill misdemeanor defendants in Travis County. Much of their work extends beyond legal representation to providing long-term support for clients to enable them to access medication, housing, and other services. The office has been in existence in Travis County for over four years, with the goal of preventing recidivism among seriously mentally ill clients and enabling long-term stabilization and treatment.
The work that I did this summer was a mix of legal defense and social work. I worked with clients in helping them understand their legal options in court, which many times involved their competency status. Clients who do not appear to be able to understand the charges against them or work productively with their attorney are referred to a psychiatrist to evaluate them for forensic competency. If they are found incompetent, they are referred to a psychiatric facility for treatment for a period of 60 days.
Much of my work involved meeting with clients in the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle to explain the competency evaluation process and other legal issues to clients. For some of them, spending time in a mental health facility was something that they looked forward to and enjoyed. For other clients, particularly ones with manic symptoms, going to the hospital was very difficult for them. The process takes a long time, because even for clients who were referred to the hospital, there were not necessarily available treatment beds open for them. There is a maximum 21-day waiting period (currently being contested) in which a defendant may wait in jail to go to the mental health treatment facility.
In addition, I observed and worked with social workers who were managing various aspects of the legal client’s housing, medical and financial situation. I went to jail to pick clients up and work with them to re-acquire the basic necessities that they would need to start anew. Many clients were very unstable in their lifestyles; transient, without assets or family members. Their criminal charge and involvement was just one part of a larger web of challenges that they faced.
I researched and wrote an article for “Voice for the Defense” journal, a publication of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. My supervising attorney will submit the article to the magazine for publication.
Overall, I was struck by the diversity of the clients that we worked with. It seemed that no set of rules could encompass all of the individuals that we worked with. The social work focus of the office and legal practice was such an appropriate blend to adequately serve the clients that we dealt with.