District judge believes the criminal justice system is woefully inadequate when it comes to treating those with mental health, other issues.
The disappearance and death of local artist Virgil Feather remains under investigation, but one question in connection to the case is this: If Feather suffered from Alzheimer’s and was no threat to anyone else, simply owing fines on an old DUI charge, was jail a fitting place for him to be?
The question of what to do with those charged with misdemeanors or lesser violations and have either failed to pay or show up for court appearance is a matter up for debate, according to Judge Donovan Foughty of Ramsey County District Court.
“When I was a county judge, after five years I would just drop warrants,” Foughty said. “If there were any misdemeanors that hadn’t been paid, or if there were any misdemeanors that the guy never appeared or something like that, after five years I would pull the warrant.”
He indicated that he believes that if an offender isn’t harming anyone, there is little benefit to reintroducing that person into the criminal justice system.
“My five-year theory is that if the system hasn’t caught them, do we really want to bring them into the system again,” Foughty said. “Because if they haven’t been causing any problems for anybody else, we cause problems for them by bringing them back into the system. I guess Virgil Feather would be an example of that.”
Pulling warrants after five years in the district is an argument Foughty says he recently lost, though it remains an ongoing discussion.
He also tackled the question of how the criminal justice system handles people with Alzheimer’s and other mental health issues. His summary? Not well.
“I have a building full of mentally ill people and drug-addicted people, and nobody’s going into that jail and saying, ‘Let’s make an assessment of those folks. Let’s see what services might be needed,’” Foughty said. “There’s nobody providing any kind of treatment for them while they’re in jail.”
Lack of in-house treatment at the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center and the Re-entry Center, which serves as a halfway house, has been a concern of both LEC director Rob Johnson and Dan Kraft, who oversees the Re-entry Center. Johnson has said in the past that the outdated facility is on its last legs, and in-house treatment options at a new facility would be ideal.
The LEC is a regional jail, meaning that entities across the state and the U.S. Marshals service send their inmates to Devils Lake. Each inmate creates revenue for the jail and is a big part of the facility’s budget.
Unfortunately, according to Foughty, the population behind bars who suffer from mental illness have few options for treatment.
The value of serving warrants on non-violent misdemeanor offenders and the paucity of treatment options at the regional jail are topics for discussion in the county, but in Feather’s case, he was picked up on Spirit Lake reservation.
Records show that Feather was extradited from Fort Totten jail to serve out his sentence on the old DUI charge. Because no information from the jail is available, there is no way to know what kind of screening, if any, Feather underwent before being incarcerated.
Feather’s incarceration in Fort Totten is arguably the first incident in a string of events that led to his death. Feather was taken into custody for unknown reasons while suffering from Alzheimer’s, according to his family, then was transferred to the LEC to served six days on a DUI from 2004 (it was previously reported that the DUI was in 2008, but that was an open container charge).
After arriving at LEC, with no one to evaluate his mental condition, he served his time and had no ride home. His wife, Vonnie Feather, unsuccessfully tried to alert someone to her husband’s condition while he was incarcerated, then was unable to communicate with him. She also said that her family had no transportation options at the time.
A Ramsey County Sheriff’s deputy then dropped Feather off near the county line when he was unable to find a ride after his release on the afternoon of Nov. 15.
Four months later, his body was found in rural St. Michael.
Sheriff Steve Nelson told the Journal that his department is only trying to help those who would otherwise be stranded. His point is: If we don’t do it, who will?
Feather’s family wondered during an interview last week if some sort of coordination between departments, such as the Ramsey and Benson County Sheriff’s Depts., may have been one way for him to get home safely However, Nelson indicated that neither Benson County nor Fort Totten police are often available when someone needs a ride.
The sheriff brings up a fair point: If his department doesn’t help out, who will? That’s a question that is likely to be tackled by the Ramsey County Commission, as they are currently investigating procedures at the department after the circumstances surrounding Feather’s death came to light.
The next County Commission meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.
Foughty says that cases like Feather’s are an example of the failures of the system to deal with the mentally ill.
“The system just doesn’t respond well to a lot of folks,” Foughty said. “There’s nobody providing any kind of treatment for them while they’re in jail. They do have some medical care, there’s a nurse there and things of that nature that catch things, but I’ve been arguing for a long, long time that it would be nice if we did some kind of screening test and assessments so that we would have a better idea as to what kinds of services are needed in the community.”
Asked if Feather slipped through the cracks of the system, Foughty went further.
“Slipping through the cracks...I don’t know,” Foughty said. “Sometimes the cracks are more like canyons.”