On Hinkley and Freddie

News outlet are reporting that John Hinkley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, is set to be released from a mental hospital after nearly 35 years of commitment to the psychiatric facility. The doctors in charge of his care declare that he is no longer suffering from depression and psychological delusions. For the past year, he has been living 17 days a month with his mother in Virginia. The Reagan Foundation has issued a statement saying they disagree with the doctors and the judge and declare that he is still a threat. So does that pile of human garbage that is running for president on the GOP ticket.

I don’t know what it is like to be shot. I don’t know what it is like to lose a person I love to gun violence. I am not doubting that for a few persons, although not Ronald Reagan who forgave Hinkley years ago, connected with the shooting there may still be strong feelings. And that is understandable. But on a day in which it is announced that while Freddie Gray was the victim of a homicide, not one single person seems to be responsible for his death, I am thinking that a man who was found not guilty by reason of insanity and served almost the whole of my lifetime in a facility, has earned the right to go home if actual medical professionals clear him. Because, sorry, I trust them a lot more than I do the people at the Reagan Foundation and Herr Drumpf. President Reagan and the other three victims saw justice served in their case. The Gray family is still waiting.

But this situation reveals some deep contradictions and hypocrisies in our country. First, a large number of citizens think that we are a Christian nation  but seem to forget that forgiveness it at the heart of the faith. Ronald Reagan knew it, and practiced it quickly. But 71% of Protestants and 68% of Catholics support the death penalty, which is indicative of a larger trend in this country: we like our justice retributive, not restorative. Second, Reagan’s own policies have caused the current crisis we face. Look at the rise in our private prisons, despite overwhelming evidence that they are rampant violators of human rights.  Look at the massive amounts of money taxpayers spend on incarceration, especially given that nearly 60% of those imprisoned are guilty of nonviolent offenses. In fact, Hinkley was lucky. An estimated 356,000 prisoners have serious mental illness but are not placed in institutions because of overcrowding and lack of facilities. Placing mentally ill persons in prison is a danger to themselves, other inmates, and institutional staff. And that rests squarely at the feet of the Reagan Administration and the GOP. Finally, we continue to perpetuate the notion that people cannot be rehabilitated. Returning citizens face legal, cultural, and societal stumbling blocks that make it difficult for them to reintegrate to life outside of prison. And despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the government should be providing more treatment and support to mentally ill persons, we still see that mental illness is grossly misunderstood. If it weren’t, people would accept that doctors who have been working with Hinkley for decades are in a much better position to determine his threat level to self and others than are people with only a GED.

As a person who lives with mental illness, as someone who knows what it is like to be in distress and what it is like to be healthy, I am deeply concerned about how easily and blithely people say, “He should be locked up forever!” Really? He should? Why? Because he shot Reagan? Well, what about Freddie Gray? What about the massive number of murders that occur each year in which no one is charged or found guilty, yet we continue to fill up prisons with nonviolent offenders, essentially running graduate schools for criminality. And if that is conflating separate issues, fine. Let’s hit it head-on: consistent evidence shows that treatment works. And do we really think that doctors who have been tasked with caring for one of the most high profile patients in modern history would sign their names to recommendations for release if they were not overwhelming confident that Hinkley is not a danger to himself and others?

The dumbing down of this country and the notion that every opinion is equal is doing serious damage to lives and reasonable conversations. If we are serious about stopping the school to prison pipeline, we need to reexamine our mental health system, including building facilities for the criminally insane. Some, maybe most, should not get out. I can understand that; there are mental illnesses that are so mysterious and powerful, the only thing that can be done is to isolate a person as humanely and safely as possible, while still respecting basic rights. But others can be treated and brought back to a level of health that allows them, with proper restrictions and responsibilities, to return to society.

This is an important issue. It comes down to a basic philosophy. Are we a country that believes once a criminal always a criminal, or do we believe that rehabilitation and transformation are not only possible, but also a focus of our justice system? Because saying that people should stay locked up indefinitely or in inhumane surroundings because “JUSTICE!” just doesn’t work. It ruins lives. And it goes against the fundamental message of Jesus Christ.