by Joyce Dudley, Santa Barbara County District Attorney
Last year I joined the newly organized group of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence (PAGV). This group is principally made up of elected District Attorneys from across the country, primarily from major cities.
PAGV’s mission is to focus on gun violence prevention strategies ranging from policy advocacy to improved enforcement of existing laws.
Our first meeting was held in Atlanta, Georgia. At that meeting there were several excellent presentations on gun violence relating to a variety of topics including: Mental Illness, Trafficking Weapons, Domestic Violence, Legislation, and Mass Murders. At the end of that meeting we decided to create two future summits, one that focused on the nexus between gun violence and mental illness and the other on the link between gun violence and domestic violence.
Last week we met in Miami to discuss the nexus between gun violence and mental illness. I was one of the conference organizers. My role was to interview potential presenters. I interviewed and was most impressed by David A. D’Amora and Harold I. Schwartz. David is the Director of the National Initiatives Council of State Governments Justice Center in NYC. Harold is the Psychiatrist-in-Chief at The Institute of Living at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Harold also co-authored the Sandy Hook Report.
Mr. D’Amora explained that clinicians and policymakers who seek ways to reduce violence need to pay greater attention to demographics like age and gender. He also felt massive cuts to mental health care have impacted our ability to intervene early for those showing the beginning signs of mental illness. He additionally believes that we must protect against over-reaction and not leap to the false conclusion that there is a strong correlation between mental illness and gun violence. Finally, Mr. D’Amora reminded our audience to think beyond psychiatric diagnoses by prioritizing interventions that directly address trauma, substance abuse, anger, work, education, family discord, social isolation, and other criminogenic factors.
Dr. Schwartz was also deeply concerned about the lack of treatment for those suffering with mental illness but felt the criminal justice system should focus its attention on evidence-based risks such as: individuals who are convicted of violent misdemeanors; those subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order; those convicted of two or more DUIs within five years; and, finally, those convicted of two or more controlled substance misdemeanors within five years.
Although not a speaker interviewed by me, I found Dr. Charles Nemeroff’s presentation to be the most illuminating. Dr. Nemeroff, Chairman of the University of Miami Department of Psychiatry, spoke about the strong link between those who were abused as children and those who later become perpetrators of violent crimes.
I came away from the most recent conference confident my office is on the right path by rigorously prosecuting child abusers, drug dealers, and those with relevant prior offenses, while at the same time vigorously supporting the efforts of those who seek treatment for trauma and addiction. I also felt proud of the fact that the laws and programs we have created in California are among the best, but are mere dreams for many prosecutors from other states. Still, we in California must continue to support our state legislators’ efforts to reduce gun violence in every way we can and to remain vigilant in our efforts to both educate and intervene whenever possible.