SALT LAKE CITY — Sometime Wednesday (if it hasn't already happened by the time you read this), the prison doors will open and Wanda Barzee, the woman who supported her husband, Brian David Mitchell, as he kidnapped and repeatedly, cruelly abused a then-teenage Elizabeth Smart, will walk free.
This was supposed to happen about six years from now, which would have seemed too soon, but Barzee has completed her federal prison sentence, and the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole said it mistakenly didn’t give her credit for time served in federal prison or the fact her federal and state sentences (she pleaded guilty and mentally ill to kidnapping in state court) were supposed to run concurrently. All of that shortened her date of release from state prison to Sept. 19 of this year.
Smart says she’s concerned, which sounds like an understatement. She believes Barzee still is “a big threat,” which is not an understatement.
Frankly, you ought to be concerned, too.
This is a nation of laws. According to those laws, Barzee has served her time and must be released. That doesn’t mean it’s right to do so.
What may arguably have been the most highly publicized kidnapping case so far of the 21st century ought to turn now into a huge national debate on how the nation has failed in its treatment of the criminally mentally ill.
Here’s a quick question to focus that discussion: How has the system changed in this regard since the 17th century?
If you said, “Not much at all,” you get a star on your forehead.
That’s not my opinion alone. A 2014 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center laid out the history of the nation’s approach to mental illness succinctly.
In 1694, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law that confined people to jail if they were “lunatic and so furiously mad as to render it dangerous to the peace or the safety of the good people for such lunatic person to go at large.” Other colonies passed similar laws.
That was more or less the way the nation treated such folks until the 1820s, when people began to regard it as inhumane and uncivilized. That led to the establishment of state psychiatric hospitals, where mentally ill patients could be kept separate from others and receive treatment. But by the mid-20th century, this practice also was considered inhumane.
That led, the report said, to deinstitutionalization, or what was “probably the most well-meaning but poorly planned medical-social policy of 20th century America.” The patients who were released often failed to receive any further care. Some committed crimes.
State hospitals still exist, but in most states the prison system now holds many more seriously mentally ill people than do hospitals.
The report said Utah had 324 patients at the state hospital in 2014. And while figures aren’t available for the number of mentally ill prison inmates, it said a reasonable estimate is that 15 percent of the state’s 3,814 inmates that year fell into that category, making the prison the de facto largest mental institution in the state.
Nationally, prisons and jails house 10 times more mentally ill people than do state hospitals.
Welcome back to the 17th century.
Prisons are working hard, with limited resources, to provide treatment. But you don’t have to look too hard to find reports that show the shortcomings. A separate report by the Treatment Advocacy Center gave Utah a C- grade for its treatment, based on 2017 figures. It did, however, give the state credit for “some recent promising new initiatives and laws.”
I don’t have any personal knowledge of Barzee’s condition or state of mind. Smart said she heard Barzee still carries around a manuscript written by her husband, who is serving a life sentence. It details what he claims are the revelations that justified him in kidnapping Smart and others.
Smart also told the Deseret News Barzee hasn’t cooperated with her mental health treatment and didn’t show up for her parole hearing. She wondered whether anyone “really honestly, truly feel(s)” Barzee no longer is a threat.
That’s a great question that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem relevant to the system.10 comments on this story
The state prison system is now finished with Barzee. She will, however, remain on probation in the federal system.
Regardless of this case, the nation needs to rethink the way it handles criminals who are mentally ill, not just for the rest of us, but for the mentally ill themselves. Unfortunately, the Treatment Advocacy Center’s report offers little hope for any sort of national debate.
“Half a century ago, such reports would have elicited spirited public discussion and proposals for reform,” it said, adding, “now they elicit a collective public yawn.”