UNH Asks: What Is A Criminal?

Sep 17, 2019

Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

The Univsersity of New Hampshire begins a lecture series Tuesday that will explore mass incarceration in New Hampshire and in the U.S.

Donna Perkins is an associate professor of justice studies and UNH, and Blair Rowlett is the director of the Strafford County Mental Health Court. NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Perkins and Rowlett about defining criminality.

(Editor's note: Below is a partial transcript from the NHPR interview. It has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Blair, can you tell us about your work with the Strafford County Department of Corrections and what you expect to happen at that roundtable?

Sure, so my work with Strafford County is to oversee the mental health court program. Essentially, what we are is a three phase intervention program where we try to do just that. We try to reroute individuals from the criminal justice system by trying to get them to, you know, engage in their own treatment, buy into their own treatment, improve their quality of life, reduce recidivism in our community, and also increase community safety and awareness.

And when we look at the question, "what is a criminal," I consider a criminal someone that acts willfully and knowingly. And so when you think about someone struggling with mental illness, you take someone, for example, who has schizophrenia and has auditory and or visual hallucinations, is that person acting willfully and knowingly? And I think that's something we really need to keep a close watch on when we're dealing with people in the criminal justice system.

You've been working within the system for many years. What changes have you seen and what have you seen that's worked?

It's been really nice seeing not only the statistics of, you know, like I said earlier on, the 70 percent success rate, but over the 14 years that I've been with the county, I've actually seen less and less of the repeat offenders myself. People that I've worked with multiple times up until the point where they were given the ability to enter into a mental health court program or even a diversion program and then never seeing them again. Sometimes that can be sad, but also it's a really good thing.

You know, and I have participants who graduate and they keep in touch with me over the years. That's really, really rewarding. And so, you know, I've seen the success. I've also seen more local agencies buying into it, more referrals from police departments, the county attorney's office, public defenders. I think they also see that it's really successful. So it's it's very hopeful.

And you feel like the perceptions of that definition of criminality have changed over time?

I think they have not only in Strafford County in New Hampshire, but in the country. I think we're in the midst of a major criminal justice reform. And I think people understand now that simply jailing and incarcerating people has never worked and it will never work. And so buying into these types of programs that are trying to treat the real issues here, I think we're going to see a lot of changes coming.