There is nobody like Marilyn Hartman. Her constant attempts to sneak aboard airplanes have drawn media attention around the world.
We are fascinated by her persistence, her grandmotherly appearance and her obvious mental health problems. We’re not sure what’s to be done about her, as she sits in jail again, but she certainly doesn’t fit our idea of a dangerous criminal. What’s a little old lady doing behind bars?
In truth, of course, we are surrounded by people like Marilyn Hartman, even when we fail to notice. There’s the loud man who makes a little scene every morning at the corner Starbucks. There’s the woman who harasses riders on the L because “people” are chasing her. There’s the young guy who steals candy bars because, he says, God told him to.
They are no less harmless than Hartman, if less benign in their appearance — in our stereotypical and even racist perception. As Hartman herself has said, “I’m an old white lady. Nobody stops me.”
If we don’t know what to do about Hartman, that’s because we don’t know what to do about any of these people. Or we do know but don’t do it. Instead of seriously treating their mental illness, in the words of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, we put Hartman and the others on “the conveyor belt” of our criminal justice system.
It should surprise nobody, though it should offend us all, that one in every four detainees in Cook County Jail — 1,500 men and women — has been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Last week, Hartman again was arrested at O’Hare Airport, just days after she was released from custody for allegedly sneaking aboard a British Airways flight to London. On Wednesday, a judge declined a request to move her from Cook County Jail to a community-based counseling center, making the perfectly valid point that Hartman might slip out and head right back to O’Hare.
Now Hartman will undergo an exam to determine whether she is fit to stand trial, as she has undergone before, and she likely will pass the test, as she has before. She is said to be intelligent and not unaware, and her ability to comprehend what’s going on in a criminal proceeding would seem to be fine.
What Hartman really needs, though, is to get off that conveyor belt of arrests, courtrooms and jails altogether, says the sheriff’s office. She should, instead, be provided with a highly individualized mental health treatment plan that finally gets to the source of her compulsion to stow away on planes.
The aim, says Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the sheriff’s office, should be to “connect Marilyn with someone who really cares about her” and can help her work her way to better mental health. In return for Hartman’s willing participation, the criminal charges against her could be held in abeyance.
Would this work? We don’t share Smith’s “cautious optimism” — Hartman has walked out of treatment facilities before — but the sheriff’s plan is a far sight more humane than the criminalizing of mental illness. And given the high expense of locking people up, it’s arguably cheaper.
There is nobody like Marilyn Hartman, true enough. But there are some 2 million people a lot like her. That’s roughly the number of people with mental illness in the United States who are jailed each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.
The vast majority of these people, like Hartman, are not violent; but once incarcerated, their mental health generally grows worse.
Then, once released from jail or prison, they typically have little access to the health care they need, and their criminal records make it hard to find a job or housing. They wind up homeless. They fill our emergency rooms. They are arrested again. They put a strain on law enforcement — and law enforcement budgets — and, for all of that, none of us is any more or less safe.
“We need to hit the pause button,” Smith said. Hartman and other “super users” of our criminal justice system, she said, should be treated “as individuals with individualized issues, instead of items on an assembly line.”
And those “individual issues” should include not only mental illness, but also such scourges as drug addiction and poverty.
Any sensible person can see that Marilyn Hartman needs help, not punishment.
If only we, as a society, would extend that compassion to all the others among us who are broken by mental illness or drug addiction or poverty or worse, even when they don’t look like Beaver Cleaver’s grandmother.
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