This week, DRW released From Hospitals to Handcuffs: Criminalizing Patients in Crisis, a report examining how Seattle health care facilities respond to patients who become disruptive or assaultive and how these patients ultimately experience our criminal legal system. The report also examines the discretion that police exercise over arrest and how prosecutors decide to criminally charge these patients.
“I still cannot believe what happened the day I got arrested at Swedish. I know I was acting erratic, but I was obviously having a mental health crisis and needed care….In order for me to finally get that care, for some reason first there had to be an arrest, I had to go to jail where I was really hurt, and then there had to be a criminal case that eventually got dismissed anyways. Why? I just needed help.”
The above quote is from Anthony, who was arrested and charged with assault in 2018 after he and his family sought help at a hospital during a mental health crisis. Anthony’s story is not unique. Carol was removed from Harborview’s inpatient psychiatric unit, booked into jail, and charged with assault after she threw juice on a nurse’s shoulder. Derek appeared at Virginia Mason acting erratically and demanding an unnecessary x-ray. When he was turned away he spit on a nurse, leading to arrest, jail, and felony assault charges. The case was ultimately dismissed because his mental illness made him impossible to prosecute.
In From Hospitals to Handcuffs, DRW found that hospital calls to police resulted in at least two patients per week being arrested, removed from treatment, and booked into jail. In most of these cases, there was no visible injury to a victim. These arrests lead to sick people stuck in jail for weeks or months, decompensating, with decreased access to needed health care. Many of the criminal cases are ultimately dismissed precisely because the person’s mental health is so compromised.
Criminalization of health-related behaviors does not help patients recover from crisis and it does not reduce rates of workplace violence for health care providers. Health care staff should not have to face stress and potential injury from workplace violence, but there are effective techniques to treat patients with significant behavioral health needs that do not require arrest. From Hospitals to Handcuffs makes multiple recommendations to health care facilities, police, prosecutors, and policymakers, and concludes:
“Every person providing health care and every person who needs it deserves a system that is humane and responsive. No one should fear going to work just as no one should fear that the symptoms that brought them to a hospital will lead instead to jail.”