Abstract: "They Are Walking Threats:" Judicial Perspectives on People with Mental Illness (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

"They Are Walking Threats:" Judicial Perspectives on People with Mental Illness

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 14, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Peter Simonsson, MSW, LCSW, PhD Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, PA
Phyllis Solomon, PhD, Professor, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Background and Purpose: As sole fact-finders, judges have significant authority in the criminal justice system. There is an increased focus on psychiatric disorders in the legal system including an expansion of services specifically developed for offenders with mental illness. Consequently, judges when confronted with mental illness are put in the position of making decisions based on their knowledge about this population. Extant research suggests that there has been an increase in negative stereotypes among the general public about people with mental illness (PMIs), particularly concerning their risk for violence and lack of treatability. If judges endorse these same lay perceptions, their resulting biases could impact the length and harshness of sentencing and the consideration of community interventions for offenders with psychiatric disorders. However, the extent to which judges, who have no special training or expertise regarding psychiatric disorders, endorse the same negative perceptions as the lay public have not been examined. This study aims to explore judges’ perceptions, attitudes, and ideas about PMIs, particularly concerning violence risk and treatability.

Methods: This qualitative study recruited judges from Philadelphia’s Municipal Court System. Data were drawn from 12 judges using semi-structured interviews. Data were analyzed using a grounded dimensional analysis to examine 1) judges’ perceptions and beliefs about the link between mental illness and violence, and 2) judges’ attitudes about the benefits of treatment for PMIs.

Results: Findings highlighted that judges perceive PMIs as a population with unique needs and that judges, in addition to safe-guarding the public, have a key role in ensuring that vulnerable PMIs receive fair hearings and effective community services. The interviews shed light on judges’ perceptions of PMIs as a violence-prone risk for the public. Specifically, a perception that psychiatric illness, as such, is a key factor that increases the risk for violent behaviors emerged. Although judges generally expressed positive views of the need for psychiatric services, they also had concerns about the decline in institutional care (e.g., state hospitals) and they indicated a need for further means of social control of PMIs to reduce their risk for violence and danger to the public. Lastly, despite the fact that family members are the most likely victims of PMI violence, judges still perceive the general public to be at risk and erroneously assume that PMIs will target strangers when they act violently.

Implications: Judges have significant influence over PMIs who are involved in the criminal justice system. Several themes emerged through the interviews that highlight how judges perceive PMIs as dangerous and treatment resistant. The fact that judges have similar knowledge gaps as the lay public about PMIs can have negative repercussions for this population. If judges reinforce these negative stereotypes in the court room, fair hearings for PMIs may be hindered. However, more research is needed about the extent to which negative stereotypes about PMIs inform judicial decision making. Based on these initial findings, social workers who accompany their mental health clients to court need to be prepared to advocate for appropriate mental health treatment for their clients.