06/27/2014 10:35 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

Daniel St. Hubert and Why the Criminal-Justice System Needs More Mental-Health Oversight

AP Photo/John Minchillo

On May 23, 2014, the New York Department of Corrections released 27-year-old Daniel St. Hubert, a paranoid schizophrenic who had served five years in prison for the attempted murder of his mother.

Within a week of St. Hubert's release, 18-year-old college student Tanaya Copeland was dead, stabbed to death in an apparently random attack as she walked to meet friends.

Two days later and just a few blocks from where Copeland's body was found, two young children were savagely attacked in an elevator as they took a break from playing outside to go get ice cream. Six-year-old Prince Joshua (P.J.) Avitto died of multiple stab wounds. His friend, 7-year-old Makayla Capers, was stabbed at least 16 times and hospitalized in critical condition.

Three days after the children were stabbed, a 53-year-old homeless man, Kyle Moore, was stabbed at a Chelsea subway station. Surveillance video captured the attack, which left Moore in critical condition. St. Hubert was identified as a suspect.

St. Hubert was apprehended and charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder. The string of violence with which he is connected has people questioning why the man was ever released in the first place: four alleged victims, including two killings, in three attacks that span about a week and a half.

Allegedly St. Hubert's sister had begged authorities to assist her in getting treatment for her brother, who was thrice declared unfit for trial and thrice institutionalized in a mental-health facility and had a history of violent crimes.

Despite that history, St. Hubert apparently did not qualify for outpatient mental-health treatment under New York's "Kendra's Law," a law named for a young woman who was pushed in front of a subway by a mentally ill man who was not undergoing treatment. The law strives to balance the privacy rights of a mentally ill person with the protection of the public that he or she might endanger. According to New York's Office of Mental Health:

New York State has enacted legislation that provides for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) for certain people with mental illness who, in view of their treatment history and present circumstances, are unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision.

What remains unclear, though, is how, given his "treatment history and present circumstances," anyone thought St. Hubert would prove likely to "survive safely in the community without supervision," or how unsuspecting citizens would be able to survive safely if they came across the path of this violent, mentally ill man.

Obviously, this situation spotlights the role of mental-health treatment in the arena of criminal law, a problem that has long plagued the criminal-justice system. Courts have consistently struggled with the issue of whether to forcibly medicate mentally ill defendants or convicts after they complete their terms of incarceration.

  • In Washington v. Harper the Supreme Court ruled that it is not a violation of due process to forcibly medicate an inmate if that inmate is a danger to himself and others, and if the medication is in the inmate's medical interest.
  • In Riggins v. Nevada a murder defendant wanted to suspend anti-psychotic medication so that a jury could see his true mental condition at trial, unmasked by treatment subsequent to the crime. The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred in allowing the involuntary medication of the defendant without evidence that forced medication was the least-intrusive alternative, that the medication was medically appropriate, and that the medication was essential for the safety of the defendant and others.
  • In Sell v. United States the Supreme Court ruled on forced medication solely for the purpose of restoring courtroom competency. In that case the court found that involuntarily medicating a defendant strictly to restore competency is appropriate only in rare circumstances demonstrated by a four-factor test:
    1. Important governmental interests are at stake.
    2. Involuntary medication will significantly further those state interests.
    3. Involuntary medication is necessary to further those interests, and no less-intrusive means are available to obtain trial competency.
    4. The administration of medication is medically appropriate and in the defendant's medical interest.

But those rulings deal with the forcible medication of inmates and defendants. They do not address what should be done about a mentally ill inmate who completes his or her sentence or becomes eligible for parole and therefore is released into the general public. Obviously this issue has no easy resolution.

Can we force medication after an inmate's release without infringing on the person's right to refuse treatment? Should we make forced medication a condition of parole? If so, how do mental-health departments and corrections departments handle the logistics of ensuring that a parolee or released convict is getting the treatment and/or medication that he or she needs?

Certainly St. Hubert's release raises red flags about the parole process. However, his case is not the first to shed doubt about the nature of parole in regard to violent offenders with lingering mental issues:

  • Jerry Andrew Active, a convicted sex offender with a history of breaking into homes and sexually assaulting children, was on probation and had just been released from jail on a probation violation a few hours before he broke into a home, raped a 2-year-old, and killed her grandparents.
  • Marlon Ricks pleaded guilty in 1990 to kidnapping, murder, and felony assault after shooting his stepfather in the head. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was paroled against prosecutors' objections in April 2011. Although the Ohio Parole Board called him "very unlikely" to reoffend, Ricks murdered his girlfriend, stabbing her 14 times, less than a year after his release.
  • Danny Smith was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the beating death of an elderly woman. Despite being convicted of using a weapon while incarcerated, he was paroled after serving only 20 years of the 35-year sentence. Only 14 months after he was released on parole, Smith shot a man execution-style in his own home in front of the man's daughter and pregnant girlfriend.

The inconsistencies in sentencing and parole among various offenses are almost unfathomable. Moreover, the issue is brought into clear focus when we compare this lack of mental-health oversight with certain minimum sentences required by some states for offenses that cannot even be considered "violent" in nature.

In Oklahoma, for example, certain crimes are designated as "85-Percent Crimes." For these offenses a person must serve a minimum of 85 percent of his or her sentence before even becoming eligible for parole or earned credits. Consequently Oklahoma is also known for its harsh drug penalties, and the state has handed out some of the longest sentences for marijuana crimes. Moreover, the state allows life sentences for relatively minor drug crimes, and it often denies parole for those convicted of crimes that involve no violence at all, such as aggravated drug trafficking.

Yet in other jurisdictions men like St. Hubert who seem to be a clear risk of danger are released without consideration for the danger that they pose to society and themselves.

Clearly it is past time to have a meaningful conversation about criminal justice and mental health; it is evidently past time to take a cold, hard look at the parole process as well. As a criminal-defense attorney, I find it impossible to endorse mandatory or forced medication for those who are no longer technically held under the custody and control of the state. However, as a citizen, I have reservations in regard to individuals with severe mental issues being released into the general population without the proper oversight and assistance necessary to protect them from harming themselves or someone else.

What, if anything, should legislatures do to hopefully rectify such an unpredictable process?