A Court for the 10th Circle of Hell
By Joel P. Engardio
A man pushed a needle of heroin into his arm as I walked by a Market Street doorway near City Hall. A woman cradling a vodka bottle slept in the next storefront. Another man screamed and spit in an incoherent rage outside the 24-hours Carl’s Jr. I was headed to on a Sunday night.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” my husband asked as I left our westside home to meet David Traylor across town. Two years earlier Traylor had attacked a tourist in a crack-fueled schizophrenic episode not far from where I was treating him to dinner.
A security guard watched us enter the fast food restaurant. He was there to keep out the most disruptive of the drug-addicted, homeless and mentally ill people languishing on the streets of San Francisco.
“I pray for them,” Traylor, 54, said about the people he used to know who are still strung-out and forgotten in United Nations Plaza, a 10th circle of hell. “I’m grateful it’s not me anymore. And I hope one day they will see the light, too.”
Traylor can’t avoid his old haunts because he must transfer at the Civic Center Muni station while commuting between his “clean and sober” group home in the Bayview and his desk clerk job near the Presidio. Plus, he likes the Carl’s Jr. burgers and they let him in now.
Traylor isn’t psychotic, in jail or dead today thanks to San Francisco’s Behavioral Health Court. When a person with a severe mental illness has a felony arrest, they can qualify for reduced jail time or even have the charges dropped if they agree to take medication and follow a court-monitored rehabilitation program.
Prisons have become de facto mental institutions where sick people are locked up without treatment. The Behavioral Health Court offers a humane alterative recently enhanced with its Housing and Employment for Recovery Outcomes program. Because of HERO, Traylor also has a home and a job.
“It’s not enough to just get someone out of jail,” said Lisa Lightman, director of San Francisco’s Collaborative Court Programs, which includes the Behavioral Health Court. “Mental health issues are always with someone. They need medication plus a purpose in life that includes work and home. HERO helps people in recovery choose what they want to do and be.”
Unfortunately, someone has to commit a crime to benefit from the program. If Traylor hadn’t knocked a man to the sidewalk, taken his wallet and phone and then slapped the man’s girlfriend when she tried to intercede, Traylor wouldn’t have gotten treatment.
It’s not a felony when homeless and mentally ill people scream at commuters or use the sidewalk as a toilet. They are left to suffer when what they really need is medication. Yet compelled treatment is politically fraught because of the civil liberty implications.
It took more than a decade for San Francisco to adopt Laura’s Law, which is supposed to provide a pathway for treating mentally ill people before they become violent. But without forced medication, Laura’s Law will keep the Behavioral Health Court in business.
“Laura’s Law is aspirational because it’s based on persuasion and that’s heavy lifting not all judges are equipped to do. Laura’s Law needs compelled treatment,” said Behavioral Health Court Judge Ronald Albers. “Just as you can’t put someone in drug treatment if they’re loaded, you can’t deal with mental illness without medication. A psychotic person needs to be mentally stable before you can ask them how they feel and what they want.”
Someone like Traylor shouldn’t have to commit a crime to get help. Compelled treatment would have let him enjoy the peace that comes with mental stability much earlier in his life.
As a teenager in Detroit, Traylor was often caught talking to the kitchen toaster. But Traylor’s mother had a lot to handle with five daughters, three sons and an alcoholic husband.
“My behavior was always overlooked and pushed aside,” Traylor said. “All I needed was some medication. It would have saved me a lot a jail time, drug abuse and hurting people.”
Traylor functioned through his illness for many years. He went to college at Northern Michigan University on a basketball scholarship and played semi-pro in Portugal for 13 years where he married a local woman and had two sons. He speaks fluent Portuguese.
“When people heard me talking to myself, I’d play it off and say I was praying or singing or rapping,” Traylor said. “The players and coaches liked to tease me and call me crazy. Eventually I got so manic on the court that my elbow throwing became violent. Refs would throw me out of games.”
At 37 he returned to Detroit alone and got hooked on crack cocaine. He visited an aunt in California to get sober. But he relapsed and ended up in homeless in San Francisco. Then in 2013 he attacked a tourist couple.
“I hit the guy to the ground and then I slapped his girlfriend. I was out of my mind,” Traylor said. “But when I heard the woman pleading for me to stop, I snapped into reality. I remembered I have five sisters and would never hit a woman. I started telling her I was sorry, and that’s when the police pulled up.”
The Behavioral Health Court doesn’t accept every mentally ill defendant. The most violent cases remain in the regular criminal court. But the prosecutor and public defender collaborate – with healthy debate -- on which cases to take.
“We care passionately about this program and know that a mistake will be on all our heads,” Judge Albers said. “So we’re really careful about protecting public safety.”
Albers is well known for the passion he uses to help people realize Behavioral Health Court is good for them. When he heard that a defendant was hiding in a Subway restaurant near the Hall of Justice because she was afraid to appear, Albers left the courtroom and walked down Bryant Street without security to meet with the woman.
“She was a very sick lady who was distrustful of what was going to happen to her,” Albers said. “If you treat people with respect and let them have a voice it goes a long way in calming them down and establishing trust.”
Traylor and the 140 others currently in the Behavioral Health Court program have regular court appearances so Albers can check on their progress.
“Judge Albers is a motivator. He asks how my job is, if I’m going to meetings,” said Traylor, who appears every three weeks. “It takes a very special judge to do this kind of work. They need a lot patience and understanding.”
As Traylor finished his burger at Carl’s Jr., he looked around at the other customers and noticed some who were clearly high. Then he talked about his hopes: Going back to college and teaching high school basketball, reconnecting with the sons he abandoned, traveling to Detroit to see his sisters for the first time in 12 years.
“I have a fear of not doing the right thing and as long as I have that fear I will be OK,” Traylor said. “I’m really looking forward to what’s in my future.”