Mental health issues land man in jail


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From childhood, Drake Munger was a loner who flinched at loud noises and didn't like to be touched.

Today, the 19-year-old is in Washington County Jail on $100,000 straight cash bond -- still struggling to cope with life around him and, his mother said, an example of what can happen when mental illness and autism collide with the justice system.

"He looks like a skeleton right now," Caroline Drury said of her son, estimating he has lost about 25 pounds since he was jailed Aug. 8 for what she called misunderstandings and police called a bicycle theft and attempt to smuggle a shank into a courtroom.

As mental hospitals across the country have closed, jails and prisons have grappled with an influx of mentally ill offenders, and the justice system has struggled to balance treatment and punishment -- issues explored last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's series "After Mayview." Mr. Munger's case underscores those challenges, with a twist.

Ms. Drury of Donora said her son's schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are compounded by mental retardation and autism, a brain disorder often characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulties with social interaction. Already, Ms. Drury said, her son's constant pacing has gotten him into disciplinary problems at the jail.

She hopes her son's charges will be transferred from regular criminal court to the county's mental health court, which emphasizes treatment over incarceration for defendants whose offenses stem at least partly from their psychiatric disorders.

She said jail is no place for her son, who has an IQ of less than 70, had been accused of retail theft as a juvenile and is so fascinated with werewolves that he has been known to sharpen his fingernails into points. She has pressed the issue with the public defender's office, which represents her son.

Chief public defender Glenn Alterio declined to discuss the case. Ms. Drury said she's trying to raise money for a private attorney.

Counties nationwide are embracing mental health courts, which Washington County Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca launched in her county with the support of other officials in 2008. Defendants may be admitted to mental health court, over which Judge O'Dell Seneca presides, or to similar diversionary programs operated by the county's district judges.

Common Pleas Judge Katherine B. Emery on Oct. 9. postponed a bond-reduction hearing for Mr. Munger while officials decide whether he would be a candidate for mental health court. Ms. Drury said an error in judgment already cost her son an opportunity to be admitted to the program by a district judge.

On July 5, according to police records, Mr. Munger called 911 and said he was detaining a person who had been breaking into vehicles at a Monongahela park.

In court records, Officer Kevin Harris said he arrived to find Mr. Munger with two juveniles, one of whom he accused of the break-ins. "When I asked him how he knew this, Munger stated that he was told by one of his own family members."

One juvenile said Mr. Munger took out a knife and slashed his bicycle tire to keep him from leaving the park, and the other said Mr. Munger had stolen the bicycle he rode to the park. According to the officer's report, Mr. Munger said he got the bike a couple of days earlier from a friend but didn't know the friend's name.

Officer Harris charged Mr. Munger with various offenses, including unlawful restraint, false imprisonment and receiving stolen property. Mr. Munger found himself in more trouble Aug. 8, when, Ms. Drury said, he might have been entered into a diversionary program during a hearing before District Judge Mark Wilson.

According to court records, a state trooper noticed that Mr. Munger had slipped something into the waistband of his pants outside Judge Wilson's office. Police described it as a 7-inch wooden shank; Ms. Drury said it was one of her tomato stakes, which her son cut off and may have taken with him for a suicide attempt.

"He talks about suicide all the time," she said.

Police charged Mr. Munger with carrying a weapon, and Judge Wilson set a $100,000 straight cash bond.

Mr. Munger's father, Joseph Munger of Monongahela, also was charged that day with attempting to intimidate one of the juveniles involved in the case. He denied wrongdoing.

Ms. Drury, who is raising two other children, Caleb, 3, and Dakota, 1, said she cannot afford to get her son out of jail.

With limited social and coping skills, a person with autism would have a difficult time adjusting to the stress of jail or prison, said John Carosso, a licensed psychologist and executive director of the Autism Center of Pittsburgh. He said some manifestations of autism, such as fast or constant speech, could annoy other inmates. Kristin Gallagher, the center's director of family support, said Mr. Munger's illnesses could make him a target of abuse or exploitation by other inmates.

Depending on his condition, Mr. Munger should not be "in a regular jail" but a treatment facility that can meet his medical needs while his case unfolds, said Daniel Torisky, president and co-founder of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, which has recommendations for how the justice system should treat offenders with autism. Mr. Torisky said he's willing to provide advocacy services to Mr. Munger and his family.

At a hearing Sept. 19, officials withdrew the unlawful restraint and false imprisonment charges, and Mr. Munger waived other charges to court. A court-monitored mental health treatment program could be a great benefit to Mr. Munger and his family, Ms. Drury said, asserting it has been difficult to find the right combination of therapy and medication for him.

Judge O'Dell Seneca, who did not discuss specific cases in an interview last week, said a county assessment team reviews candidates for mental health court. Eligible defendants voluntarily commit to a customized regimen of treatment and monitoring. The judge said she believes the defendants' consent to treatment often yields better results than a court-ordered treatment plan.

Defendants "enter into a contract with me personally. It's couple of pages long. ... They buy into this," Judge O'Dell Seneca said.


Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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