Tonight on PBS: The Definition of Insanity — Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System

Posted on April 14, 2020 at 7:00 am

Tonight on PBS: A powerful documentary about the failures of the criminal justice system when it comes to mental illness, will millions of dollars wasted on the very definition of cruel and inhuman punishment. It is also the story of a pioneering judge who establishes a very successful pilot program, reducing arrests, recidivism, and costs.

A personal note: When I was a young lawyer I worked on a case that would have benefitted from exactly this kind of option. A mentally ill homeless man was cold and so he broke into an office building. Because it happened to be a federal office building and he opened a file drawer it led to a number of charges that he was not really responsible for, or responsible enough to understand. I wish we had had an option like the one this judge has created.

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Television

Interview: Nadia Costa of ‘Crime After Crime’

Posted on July 10, 2011 at 12:50 pm

“Crime After Crime” is the story of Deborah Peagler, serving a 25-to live sentence for killing the man who abused her, and the lawyers who fought for her release.  California is the only state to adopt a law that permits the courts to re-open cases if there is evidence of abuse as a factor in the crime.  Peagler was severely abused by Oliver Williams, who forced her into prostitution at the age of 15, beat her with a bullwhip, and abused her daughter as well.  In desperation, Peagler asked friends of hers who were in a gang to beat him up.  They killed him.  She went to prison.  Twenty years later, land use lawyers Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, with little experience of criminal law but a strong commitment to helping survivors of abuse, took her case to see if the new law would help her to get out of prison.

Costa took time to speak to me about the case, the movie, and mostly about Peagler, whose extraordinary courage, dignity, principle, and wisdom illuminate the film.  Her co-counsel came to the case because of obligation as an Orthodox Jew to “free those who are bound” and from his own experience as a child unable to protect his mother from abuse.  Costa’s connection was less direct but just as personal, based on her experiences as a social worker and her spiritual commitment to helping others.  As she says in the film, she was also inspired by running ultra-marathons, which provided a physical and spiritual level of endurance necessary for what proved to be a six-year process with many devastating setbacks.

The hardest part, she told me, was when the prosecutor’s office reversed its decision to support Peagler’s release.  She dreaded having to tell her client, who was already making plans for seeing her grandchildren and visiting the ocean.  But Costa said that Peagler’s grace, peace, and compassion even in receiving such painful news were a sustaining force in maintaining her own dedication and inspiration.

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Interview
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