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A More Global View

Why Eugene criminal defense attorney Rosalind Lee donned the robes for mental health court

Published in 2020 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine

For six years, criminal defense attorney Rosalind M. Lee saw the justice system from a whole new vantage point: the bench.

“It’s literally a different view,” she says. “My interactions with prosecutors and defense attorneys, police officers and the jail are completely different. There are a lot of like-minded people who are trying to do the right thing. You don’t see that the same way when you’re an advocate. As a judge, you see a more global view.”

In 2014, in addition to defending clients in felony criminal cases, Lee became an assistant judge for the Eugene Municipal Court before stepping down this June. It was an extensive docket: 30 to 60 hours per month hearing disorderly conduct, drunken driving, criminal trespass and petty theft cases. But she was interested in supporting the mental health court, which seeks to identify the underlying reasons people have become involved in the criminal justice system while providing access to social services and treatment.

Eugene Mental Health Court was created roughly 15 years ago. Lee says the model has been generally well-received as a tool to reduce recidivism. “It’s very common for people who have serious mental illness to get caught up in the criminal justice system, and it’s often been the system that has been left to cope,” she says. “I’ve always had clients who have had serious and persistent mental health problems.”

As a kid in California, Lee remembers wanting to stand up for the underdog. A summer internship working for a lawyer who ran a nonprofit showed her the power of having a law degree, and she moved across the country to attend Howard University School of Law because of its history producing civil rights litigators.

After law school she worked as a research attorney in the death penalty unit of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, where she witnessed the role mental health can play in some cases. Over the next 24 years, as she built her own criminal defense practice, that perspective didn’t change. Eventually a judge persuaded her she had the right skill-set to support the mental health court in Eugene. 

Upon donning the robes, she was concerned that prosecutors might see her as biased, given her defense practice; but she pushed those thoughts aside. 

“It’s such a different analysis when you’re a judge than when you’re an advocate,” Lee says. “There’s not a lot you can do about what other people think of you. All you can do is do the job as well as you can. So I tried not to worry about what other people thought and focused on the problem in front of me.”

In mental health court, that also means her decisions on treatment ultimately depend on defendants opting in. “You can’t make someone go to treatment; it’s entirely voluntary,” Lee says. “In my experience, if people aren’t ready to do treatment, there’s no point in them doing it. I think you fundamentally have to be ready in order for it to be effective.”

Those who do opt in and complete their programs successfully may be able to get their cases dismissed or sentences reduced—and they get access to treatment. “The genius behind the treatment court model is looking behind the criminal behavior to fix the underlying problem,” she says. “It takes a longer view than what most criminal adjudication is.”

Unfortunately, the needs are great. The court itself is in a constant state of triage, with unreasonable caseloads and never enough psychiatrists or treatment beds, she says. 

“When you have people who are unhoused and mentally ill and have a record, there are very few places for them to get housing or shelter,” Lee says. “There are just a lot of gaps in the resources.”

COVID-19 didn’t help matters. As of late March, the court had limited hours as a result of the pandemic and was postponing most out-of-custody appearances 60 days. 

Despite the challenges, when Lee thinks back on her time as judge, she is happy she was able to engage people accused of crimes—sometimes as minor as stealing a sandwich—in a way that promoted their success. “It’s amazing,” she says, “how well people respond to being heard and treated with dignity and respect.”

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