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Amalgamating homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and the criminal justice system, Jessica Cooper asks, what is social justice?
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“Mental health courts are criminal courts that were started by attorneys and judges about two decades ago. They kept seeing the same people cycling through the courts day after day, many with mental illness.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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Cooper is a Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow working with Andrew Willford, Anthropology, and other Cornell scholars in law and the humanities on questions of socio-economic inequality, criminal justice, and mental health.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“In the course of teaching clients how to be responsible citizens, court professionals might also say, ‘I’m not sure this is the right thing. How do you hold someone accountable if they were starving so they stole food?’”
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

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Cooper challenges us, “To ask, how do we imagine justice? What do we want a just society to be?"
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

Juxtaposed—Mental Health, Criminal Justice

by Jackie Swift

“Right now in the United States, people are suffering from homelessness, poverty, and cycles of incarceration,” says Jessica M. Cooper, Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow. “I see it as part of my job to make sure everyone knows why this is relevant to them. It’s part of the political conversation that’s happening currently, about how we treat people in our communities.”

Cooper, one of the inaugural group of Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows, has come to Cornell to work with Andrew C. Willford, Anthropology. Cooper completed her PhD at Princeton University, having spent two years of dissertation field work, studying criminal courts in the San Francisco Bay area. She looked at questions of socio-economic inequality, criminal justice, and mental health.

“Mental health courts are criminal courts that were started by attorneys and judges about two decades ago,” she says. “They kept seeing the same people cycling through the courts day after day, many with mental illness, and they wanted to restructure courtrooms and turn them into public health clinics. They sought to provide social services through the court, to teach people to take responsibility for themselves.”

Mental Health Courts and Homelessness

Given that defendants—called clients in mental health court—had to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder to participate in mental health court, Cooper expected the officials of the courts to spend much of their time talking about psychiatry.

“That rarely came up,” she says. “Most of the time they talked about housing. The vast majority of the clients were homeless. It soon became apparent to me that this wasn’t just about mental illness; it was also about serious economic inequality. Housing is the first step on the path of social justice. How can you hold someone accountable for anything if they don’t have housing? Even if you can get them medications, for example, how are they going to safely store and maintain them?”

Cooper’s dissertation looks at the ways in which mental health courts function: the disconnect between intention and reality and the relationships between court professionals, clients, and clients’ families. Now, working with Willford and other Cornell scholars in anthropology, law, and the humanities, Cooper will be turning her dissertation into her first book, Unaccountable: Surreal Life in California’s Mental Health Courts. The book will further delve into her conclusions based on the situations she observed and the individuals she came to know during her field work.

“In these criminal courts, the relationships between the professionals who staff the court and the clients with whom they work undo narratives of individual responsibility, even as staff and clients both articulate them,” Cooper says. “For example, in the course of teaching clients how to be responsible citizens, court professionals might also say, ‘I’m not sure this is the right thing. How do you hold someone accountable if they were starving so they stole food?’”

Cooper continues, “Conversely, clients were frequently frustrated that court staff could not provide the resources they had hoped in order to assist clients. But clients also understood that staff were trying to help them in a resource-poor environment, where there was little money from the state to be had. These were ethically challenging relationships for all involved.”

Jail versus Mental Health Facilities

The challenge was readily apparent in the housing situation, Cooper explains. Many clients convicted of low-level crimes, for instance, were required to stay at a residential psychiatric facility for a set period of time as a condition of their release from jail. Yet there were never enough beds at these facilities, and often the clients would wait in jail for placement. This ultimately lengthened their incarceration beyond what it would have been if they had been sentenced outright to jail time. Many might say the system was broken.

“I argue that there’s a danger in systems thinking,” Cooper says. “We think, in one part of the system we can rectify injustice by improving jails, or policing, or the services the court can try to provide. We can fix things; we can modernize. I saw attorneys trying to fix a part of the system, trying to hold the other pieces accountable, and they were unable to do it. They couldn’t make new beds at the residential treatment centers; they couldn’t coordinate with the jail. All these attempts to improve the system weren’t latching onto anything.”

“Fixing criminal justice by providing mentally ill inmates psychiatric care doesn’t work if the Department of Public Health doesn’t have enough resources to provide publicly-funded treatment.”

Cooper further elaborates, “Systems thinking runs the risk of looking to improve through technocratic projects while siloing those very projects, without forcing a conversation about larger ethical questions of social justice. For example, just focusing on how to fix a broken criminal justice system overlooks the frail connections between criminal justice and public health agencies. Fixing criminal justice by providing mentally ill inmates psychiatric care doesn’t work if the Department of Public Health doesn’t have enough resources to provide publicly-funded treatment.”

Political and Psychological Anthropology and Social Justice

Cooper is excited to work with Willford, whose current research focuses on mental health, psychiatry, neurology, and religious healing traditions in North America and India. “Andrew’s work is at the intersection of political and psychological anthropology,” Cooper says. “He’s given critical insights and contributions to the discipline at large, and his research asks fundamental questions of subjectivity, identity formation, and power.”

Cooper mentions Willford’s book, Tamils and the Haunting of Justice, which she finds particularly relevant to her own research. “Andrew argues that justice as an ethical good is hamstrung and haunted by the arbitrariness and violence of law that is implicit in the process of seeking justice,” she says. “This work speaks directly to my own efforts to understand the persistence of violence amid progressive projects of social justice in California’s mental health courts.”

Cooper hopes that her research will challenge others to become involved with the issues she raises. “Given that I don’t have an easy answer for how to go about fixing things, I feel that I need to constantly keep chiming that bell,” she says. “To ask, how do we imagine justice? What do we want a just society to be? My wish is that people who engage with my work, one way or another, think through these questions and come up with their own answers and then share their ideas.”