“Our New Chief Justice.” Art by Laura Umetsu. Ink on paper.

In November 2020, Justice Steven González was elected by his judicial colleagues to become Washington State’s first Latino and Jewish Supreme Court Chief Justice. Local attorney and NAMI Seattle board emeritus Laura Umetsu and numerous other BIPOC individuals whose loved ones with mental illnesses were affected by incarceration celebrated at the news. In this feature, Umetsu reflects on Justice Gonzalez’s recent talk on the evolving legal landscape that is increasingly recognizing mental illness as a medical issue best treated outside the criminal legal system through community-based care models.

“I would like to start out with a land acknowledgment.” 

An opening with an Indigenous land acknowledgment was not the first thing I expected to hear when I logged into the 2020 Washington Legislative and Policy Advocates talk on how mental health policy intersects with the juvenile legal system in Washington State. As an attorney, I have attended hundreds of hours of legal seminars, and I have never before encountered a land acknowledgment at any of them.  But because Washington State Supreme Court’s newly elected Chief Justice Steven González was the speaker, I wasn’t all that surprised.* From taking part in the 2018 decision to ban eliminating jurors from jury pools for distrust of police (which historically was an effective tool for eliminating Black and Latinx jurors from criminal trials), to co-signing with the other Supreme Court Justices to acknowledge the historic trauma inflicted upon the Black community in the wake of George Floyd’s death to his scholarship on implicit bias in policing of Black and Latinx individuals in Washington**, González is well known in Washington legal circles as a leader who displays empathy to historically marginalized communities. 

González’s acknowledgment of historical and ongoing traumas inflicted upon marginalized communities like the Native Americans of Washington State was a natural segue to the seminar topic of mental health as it intersects with BIPOC defendants, in particular Black and Latinx juveniles, who like Native Americans are disproportionately caught up in the criminal legal system. He went on to ask his audience the following transitional questions. How should we respond to mental illness with children as they intersect with the criminal legal system? Whose responsibility should it be to take care of these individuals? The judiciary? The police? Family members? The legislative branch in Olympia? Faith communities of those affected?

González’s opinion was twofold.*** First, he reiterated that while he does not intend to disparage his well-meaning judicial colleagues who believe that sending juveniles who are living with mental illnesses to incarceration for truancy is a good motivator to stay in school, he strongly disagrees with that approach. González believes that any interaction with the criminal legal system has adverse effects on juveniles’ mental health above any purported good that interaction may cause. It is his hope that children are kept as far away from him and his colleagues in their official capacity as judges involved in the criminal legal system as possible.

More effective methods of reducing truancy and behavioral issues in school, González argued, are well funded social safety nets that address, among other things, mental health symptoms that may otherwise be misinterpreted as behavioral problems by undertrained and overworked school staff. Making school an attractive place where students do not have the motivation to be truant will cut off the school to prison pipeline that increases the chances that young people will become repeat prison inmates throughout their lives. Judges are not mental health experts of effective treatment, and mental health issues that could be more compassionately and effectively addressed at a well-funded school level with social workers should not be addressed with police and jails. 

González believes that when it comes to individuals with mental illnesses, we need to look upon them with compassion, rather than jail them or lobotomize them away from the community. “They are humans just like you and me,” he said. “I’d rather we address the issue [of youth incarceration and mental health] at the front end [increased social safety nets], and not the back end [of long term repeat incarceration].” Individuals who live with mental illnesses unfortunately often do not receive help until they are incarcerated for showing symptoms of their mental illnesses, and González laments the chronic underfunding of medical facilities, emergency housing, other social safety nets that turn juveniles with criminalized mental health symptoms into long term participants of a cruel game of mental healthcare musical chairs. Individuals are often worse off long term when they are released from jail than when they entered, increasing chances of reincarceration, or worse, a fatal confrontation with police. 

“We as a society pay a price” when we do not acknowledge the responsibility to help these individuals from a community perspective, González said. In 2014, González authored the unanimous Washington Supreme Court opinion that psychiatric boarding (the practice of strapping patients to beds in emergency rooms for days or even weeks while waiting for a psychiatric bed to open) was illegal. However, without extra funding from the legislative branch, this ruling created a dilemma for doctors across the state as they struggled to comply with both state and federal laws prohibiting “streeting”, sans adequate funding for compliance. While psychiatric boarding is inhumane, the alternative, sending individuals who are severely mentally ill into the street before they are fully stabilized due to lack of funding from our community, is also inhumane. 

González concluded that in addition to educating others on the negative effect criminal courts have on youth, community members may need to earmark more funding to social safety nets. He believes that new criminal courts will likely exacerbate the mental health issues of our BIPOC youth and will send more of them down the school to prison pipeline and long term increasingly exacerbated mental health problems. 

While mental health activists by large desire that mental health funding could be diverted into proactive social safety nets that reduce reincarceration rates of individuals who live with severe mental illnesses, González explained that diverting funds from the criminal legal system to mental health programs is very complex. “Court funding is a complex mix of municipal, county, state, and some federal funding split among the judicial and executive branches from both dedicated funds and general funds, so there is no easy transfer from one thing to another since so many decision-makers are involved.”

González’s perspective into the intersections of BIPOC specific stressors and trauma, long term mental health, and incarceration of youth in juvenile legal systems will be a valuable addition to what now may be the most diverse state Supreme Court in the country, thanks to the 2020 elections of Helen Whitener and Raquel Montoya-Lewis to the bench as Washington’s first Black female and Native American female Supreme Court Justices. While our state’s judiciary, like all judiciaries, is bound by the confines of the law in their rulings, it helps to have Justices who understand the scope of the problems individuals with chronic and severe mental illnesses face. 

One thing that stuck out to me when I spoke to González was his humility in willingness to admit what he didn’t know. When I asked him his thoughts on peer-based models to incentivize children to stay out of the juvenile legal system (similar to the peer to peer support groups that NAMI offers), he replied that “I am open to peer-based models, but I am not the expert in this.” It’s in large part his acknowledgment and understanding that members of the judiciary are not experts in mental health and trauma that motivates his desire to keep the fates of individuals suffering from symptoms of severe mental illnesses out of the long term care of the criminal legal system. 

However, in order to maximize the ability of understanding members of the judiciary like González to make compassionate rulings within the confines of the law that will benefit individuals with mental illnesses, we need clearly earmarked and consistent adequate funding from the legislative branch and support from their electorate (our community) to make it happen. González’s words in the 2014 Supreme Court ruling banning psychiatric boarding will do our community no good unless we as a state successfully fund more psychiatric treatment beds and early intervention programs for young people most vulnerable to succumbing to a mental health crisis. In the wake of COVID 19 isolation, a stressful election season, and viral murders of unarmed Black Americans, now more than ever, legislators and their constituents are aware of the increased need for mental health social safety nets. 

The time is now to encourage our community to ask legislators to pass laws and budgets earmarked for proactive and compassionate community-oriented mental health solutions outside of the criminal legal system.

* González’s land acknowledgment came with a unique twist. Not only did he acknowledge the historical presence of the Lushootseed speaking tribes of Thurston County, he went on to explain the history of the name of Thurston County’s namesake, Samuel Thurston, a well-documented racist who both hated and feared Native and Black Americans. Thurston fought to legislate to ban free Blacks from living in the state of Washington (in what then was Oregon Territory). González concluded that perhaps, given Thurston’s racist legacy, we should not seek to honor him and we are overdue for a Thurston County name change.

** Some key findings: 1) Youth of color in the Washington juvenile legal system face harsher sentencing than similarly situated white youth, 2) Defendants of color were much more likely than similarly situated white defendants to receive below the standard sentencing range, 3) With regards to legal financial obligations, Latinx defendants are more likely to encounter higher legal financial obligations than their similarly situated white defendants 4) Pretrial release conditions disproportionately negatively affect BIPOC defendants, 5) The arrest rate for drug delivery of Black defendants is 21 times higher than that of white defendants, and that disparity is not reflected in different usage rates of these drugs across races, and 6) Minority drivers are more likely than white drivers to be searched by Washington State Patrol officers, though the rate of searches that result in a law enforcement seizure is higher for white drivers.

*** González’s remarks at the talk were in the capacity of a private individual citizen. While he identifies as Jewish and Latino, he does not purport to speak for all Jewish or BIPOC people and did not speak as a representative for the members of the Judiciary in which he serves.

If you would like to get involved in trying to get mental health social safety nets funded in Washington, keep an eye out for announcements on opportunities to virtually meet with your representatives on February 15, 2021, for NAMI’s annual mental health lobby day.  If you would like to be notified when Lobby Day details are available, email info@namiseattle.org.

While you are waiting for Lobby Day, NAMI National and NAMI Washington have great tips and tools for Advocacy now:

NAMI National and Federal Policy

NAMI Washington State Advocacy

Tips for Engaging Candidates

To be part of a compassionate care solution to community members seeking help and support for mental illnesses of themselves or loved ones, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to NAMI Seattle. Your donations fund our education and peer-led group support programs that support individuals and their loved ones affected by mental illness in the King County area.