Q&A with the Honorable Jeffrey R. Smith, Spokane County District Court, Mental Health Therapeutic Court and DUI Therapeutic Court
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Policy Research Associates on 11/10/2022
You’ve spent time considering the experience of individuals impacted by the criminal justice system with mental health disorders. What is your personal and professional background relevant to this area of work?
On a professional level, my connection to this work is unique. My journey to the bench is out of the norm. I practiced medicine for 18 years before going to law school. First, I practiced with a cardiac and thoracic surgery team. Then I transitioned into family practice as a primary care provider (PCP). My medical background gives me an interesting perspective when working with individuals with mental health challenges. When somebody in the courtroom looks tired or behaves oddly, I try to find out what medications they are taking. Similarly, when looking at urine analysis test results, I have a better and deeper understanding than most judges because of my medical experience.
I haven’t shared my personal background with many people, but my dad had significant bipolar disorder and an alcohol use disorder. As a result, I went through childhood watching my dad self-destruct. I didn’t know what I was watching or experiencing as a child, but I knew it didn’t feel good. My dad would get into trouble and be away from the family. Then he would come back and be okay for a while. Eventually, though, he would self-destruct again.
I have wondered what might have happened had my dad had the opportunity to engage in treatment for his co-occurring disorders. Maybe things would have turned out differently for him. It certainly would have had a lesser impact on our family. The flip side of that is that the experience prepared me for what I do now.
As a judge, you see and hear the lived experience of individuals in crisis. How has this work transformed your perspective of what it is like for those involved in the criminal justice system?
Frankly, I’m clueless about what barriers somebody must overcome to get into the courtroom because after I park in my reserved parking spot, I walk through a special door to a special elevator up to my chambers and then out to the bench. In contrast, there are many barriers that folks have to surmount to get into the courtroom, let alone navigate the legal system in general.
They’ve got to find a place to park, and parking around our courthouse is horrible. It is also not cheap. Or they have to find a ride or take the bus. They may need to arrange childcare. Then, getting through the door, there are security and magnetometers. Individuals have to remove their belts and shoes. Once inside, mental barriers are associated with figuring out which courtroom you’re supposed to be in, which may change daily.
Even after finding the correct courtroom, individuals are faced with the room’s design and can be intimidated when they don’t know where to sit or how to act.
Mental health adds a whole other layer. It’s not uncommon to have individuals come in who are off their medications or have medications that need to be adjusted. That means the person across from me could be experiencing auditory hallucinations, for example, and not even hearing what I’m saying to them.
I learned of a professional conference where a presenter was speaking to a group of judges, and at one point, unrelated audio started playing from one of the speakers. The presenter kept talking as if nothing was happening. Eventually, the judges in the audience spoke up and said they couldn’t follow what was being said and that somebody needed to turn the audio off. It turned out it was a mini social experiment for the audience to understand and experience what it’s like to have auditory hallucinations and how difficult it is to focus or follow directions.
I think having an awareness of mental illness is essential for judges. We work with people who may be unmedicated or experiencing side effects from their medications. Individuals may be dealing with things mentally that they have no control over. Maybe the person is experiencing depression such that they can’t stay awake. Perhaps they are in a manic phase and cannot pay attention because they’re bouncing all over the place.
I think those are real issues in my court every day. Therefore, having a team that understands these issues is a priority for me. A well-trained and trauma-informed staff of prosecutors, public defenders, caseworkers, and probation officers will do a better job helping individuals navigate the system.