President's Message: Finding the Light - By Mark Snodgrass

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Thursday, July 26th, 2018

Back on May 17th, I along with TCDLA Executive Director Melissa Schank and CDLP Chair Clay Steadman had the opportunity to sit down with Court of Criminal Appeals Justice Barbara Hervey and discuss TCDLA’s plans for the handling of our grant seminars during the upcoming year. One area of discussion that was deemed important to Justice Hervey and all involved was mental health issues affecting our clients. We assured the Justice that the issue would be addressed.

A recent study showed that about 30% of inmates currently in local Texas jails suffer from at least one serious mental illness. In 1970 only 5% of inmates suffered from serious mental illness. This 30% number does not consider those individuals with less severe undiagnosed mental health issues.

State funding for treatment of the mentally ill is inadequate. This is causing TDCJ and our county jails to become warehouses for the mentally ill in today’s society. As of today, at least in my area, inmates are often waiting up to one year or more in the county jails to be sent to a state mental hospital for restoration of competency under the provisions of Article 46B of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. This wait time often puts a defense attorney in a true ethical dilemma, especially when a client is charged with a class A or B misdemeanor and the wait for treatment for restoration is longer than any possible sentence.

About midmorning the day after our meeting with Justice Hervey, the news alert came across my phone that there was a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. By the time the dust had settled, a 17-year-old student had allegedly killed 10 and wounded 13 others. The alleged gunman was taken into custody and charged with multiple counts of capital murder and aggravated assault.

The following Monday when I dropped my daughter Claire off at school, I told her I loved her like I always do, and then added to be careful and stay safe. As I was driving away from the school, it dawned on me what I had said to her, and that I would be safer in a courtroom later that morning full of defendants charged with numerous felonies than my daughter would be in her eighth-grade English class. I find that extremely troubling and truly hope we can do something other than offer thoughts and prayers to fix this problem.

I have no personal knowledge if the alleged gunman in the Santa Fe shooting has any mental health issues, but it would not surprise me if he does. The 30% estimate of inmates in county jail being affected by mental health issues does not surprise me either. In an attempt to do something to help our members and others effectively represent these defendants with mental health issues, Clay Steadman and the Criminal Defense Lawyers Project committee will this year have a traveling CLE event titled “Come and Take It.” The “roadshow” is currently scheduled to go to ten cities and towns throughout the state—all the way from El Paso to South Padre Island to Texarkana and points in between.

One of the topics of the Come and Take It seminars will be Mental Health, Incompetence, and Insanity. The focus will be on investigating and discovering your clients’ mental health history and mental health issues as it relates to mitigation. Additionally, there will be discussion regarding factual and procedural issues as it relates to competency and the use of not guilty by reason of insanity as an affirmative defense. I urge each of you to attend this seminar so that we can all be better equipped to handle these cases that involve so many of our clients.