Mental health red flags 'wake up call,' lawyer says | News Coverage from USA

Mental health red flags ‘wake up call,’ lawyer says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Red flags in the run-up to the homicides in Tennessee that left seven people dead should serve as a “wake-up call” for the state, says a prominent defense attorney who reviewed the case.

Attorney Alex Little said the case exposes flaws with the ways the criminal justice system handles offenders with mental health problems. Challenges are particularly potent in rural areas that can lack the funds and the infrastructure to get treatment to those who need it.  

“We spend a lot more money putting people in jail than we do actually addressing the underlying issues that get them to the courthouse in the first place,” said Little.

Michael Lee Cummins, the suspect in the Tennessee deaths, had a lengthy criminal history in Sumner County, including previous convictions for aggravated assault, domestic assault and attempted aggravated arson.

Cummins, 25, was repeatedly released on probation. Three times, the terms of probation required him to undergo a “mental health evaluation”:

  • In 2013, after he was charged with violating an order of protection by being around a 17-year-old girl.
  • In 2017, after he was charged with stealing a neighbor’s turkey.
  • In 2018, after he was charged with setting fire to a neighbor’s house and attacking her.

On Monday, after Cummins was taken into custody as a suspect in the seven homicides, state probation officers said he had failed to get the evaluation required for the 2018 case. It was not immediately clear what if any treatment he got in the other cases.

April 30: Medical examiner: Seven Tennessee homicide victims died from blunt force trauma

April 29: Man accused of killing seven in Tennessee set home on fire in 2017, threatened to ‘finish the job’

Little said it seemed clear Cummins needed “serious mental health treatment” that he never got.

“That’s really where our system falls apart,” Little said. “We drug test folks, sometimes as much as once a week. Can you imagine if we spent that money instead on getting counseling, therapy and medication?”

Little drew a parallel to the 2018 mass shooting that killed four people at an Antioch Waffle House. The suspect in that case, Travis Reinking, 30, had a history of mental health problems and was briefly committed for schizophrenia treatment before court proceedings could continue.

The message sent in both cases, Little said, was to “properly fund and pay attention to mental health treatment for offenders.”

“If that’s not a wake up call, I’m not sure that we’ll ever wake up,” Little said.

Probation for 2018 case in line with sentencing guidelines

Probation is common in cases that match Cummins’ history.

The 2018 probation order, on the arson and assault charges, was approved as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. Nashville defense attorney David Raybin said the order seemed to be consistent with the sentencing guidelines for judges and prosecutors.

April 28: Seven people killed in string of rural Tennessee homicides, authorities confirm

April 27: Man in custody following ‘massive’ manhunt after 5 found dead in rural Tennessee

“Sentencing guidelines are pretty strict, and many times the DA will resolve a case based on what the judge might do in the case,” Raybin said. 

When a defendant has a history of mental health issues, the law encourages a resolution in the mental health system, Raybin said. 

A long period of probation, along with the order for a mental health evaluation “might be a better option than a short period of incarceration,” Raybin said. “You can’t foresee a horrible situation like this. For every one of these, there are many cases that end successfully.”

Even so, Nashville defense attorney Will Conway said, the Cummins case raised “a ton of red flags.”

He said that, moving forward, it would be important to determine what probation officers did to get Cummins treatment and to monitor his behavior for warning signs.

Cummins was most recently on state probation, but had been on county probation for previous misdemeanor charges.

Tim Cook with PSI Probation, the private company that handled Cummins’ county probation in the 2017 turkey theft case, said Cummins violated his probation before the company could set up an evaluation with an outside agency.

Once he violated, Cook said, the conditions were rendered moot. Cummins returned to jail.

“He never was on probation long enough,” Cook said. “We would have had no jurisdiction over him while he’s sitting in jail.”

Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford would not say whether Cummins received treatment while in jail, citing federal privacy laws. He said inmates get mental health treatment on a case-by-case basis based on their behavior or requests for help.

Nashville sheriff calls probation a bad match for people with mental illness 

Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall said he wasn’t surprised to hear Cummins had re-offended after being flagged for a mental health review.

“It sounds like in Sumner County someone identified some issues,” Hall said, referencing the multiple requirements for a mental health evaluation. “But then they put him on a program called probation.”

In Nashville, Hall said, offenders with mental health issues have a 20% success rate on probation. He said that low metric was a sign that probation is not an effective way to point people with mental health issues away from crime.

“The goal would be put him on a track of mental health,” Hall said. “Instead you put him in a jail, send him to court, convict him, put him on probation and wonder why he’s not successful.”

Hall is overseeing the construction of a new jail that would divert offenders with mental health problems out into a separate unit focused on treatment.

“It is my belief that you can prevent a person from spiraling,” he said. “We want to take them out of criminal justice and hand them off to mental health in the very beginning.”

A broken system

Experts say Hall is an outlier among criminal justice officials.

John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said most people with serious mental illness aren’t going to be violent. But he said it can be difficult for a person to get treatment unless they act violently.

“Until you show you’re a danger to yourself or others, you’re really going to be ignored,” he said, adding that in about two-thirds of homicides in which a child kills their parents, serious mental illness is involved.

“It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s what the system is worst at preventing,” he said.

Snook said Nashville is making strides with its new mental health Crisis Treatment Center, which opened in January.

“That’s what you want to see,” he said. “That idea of both having the treatment there for people when they’re in an emergency, and also having really focused and thought-out ways to make it easy for law enforcement to bring people in for treatment, rather than getting them into the criminal justice system. (The system) is not set up to deal with a (serious) mental illness.”

Follow Adam Tamburin and Amy Nixon on Twitter: @tamburintweets and @AmyKNixon

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