February 26, 2013

Honorable Stephanie McDonald

February 26, 2013: Judge Stephanie McDonald, Circuit Judge at Large in the State Court was our speaker. She is an honors graduate from the University of South Carolina, and magna cum lade graduate of the USC School of Law.  After many years in private practice she is now one of seven at large Circuit Judges.

The vast majority of defendants in the court system fall in the 17 to 55 age bracket and are people with numerous petty offenses such as shop lifting. In cases where the defendant pleads guilty it is still necessary to determine if he or she fully understands the charges. Judge McDonald cited one case of a repeated defender who interrupted the judge’s explanation of his rights by saying “this ain’t my first rodeo!”  One of the most pressing factors found in dealing with offenses is the large number who exhibit some form of mental illness. In fact the three largest mental health centers in the USA are actually jails in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.

One of the difficult problems when dealing with defendants is determining whether they are competent for trial. Thus, much time is spent in examining alleged offenders. The jails in America have become the largest providers of medical treatment in the nation. In many cases, it is difficult to determine competency as many defendants are simply turned back to the streets in hope that they will not become repeat offenders. It should also be noted that guns are only a part of the issue at large. Society is faced with either treating defendants with mental problems, or spending even more money keeping them in jail. Money has been cut from many, if not all programs, thus creating a “perfect storm” in which every community faces similar challenges. In 1954, national mental health centers were established by the Federal budget, but those services are now gone.  It is difficult for legislators and congresspersons to campaign for more mental health funding, as mental illness is still regarded with a negative connotation. Thus, large numbers of individuals are incarcerated rather than treated, which begs the question of whether “housing” mentally ill defendants without treatment, is cruel and unusual punishment.  In cases where a suit is brought against the government, even more public money is spent.

In reality, about 15% of defendants plead insanity, but nearly 90% of all cases are related to the use of drugs or alcohol.  There are obvious errors in the screening process as can be noted in the recent case of a woman attempting to shoot a firearm on the Ashley Hall campus. Chaplain Rob Dewey, of the Charleston Crisis Ministry, noted that about 40 people in our local area meet every other month to collaborate ways to reduce crime.  Judge McDonald explained that while the stigma against mental illness still exists, progress is being made, but significant funding and support is still needed to improve or solve the mental health issue.                                              
Reported by Fred Sales, Keyway Committee