Progressive Prison Project
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
The Need for Non-Legal Advisement
in the Criminal Court Process
by, Joel Caldwell, Psy.D.- Guest Blogger
We had a wonderful conversation with Joel Caldwell a few
weeks ago on the telephone. While we admire anyone who
undertakes this kind of difficult and noble service, Joel seemed
particularly able, compassionate and with the spirit – so we
invited him to write a guest blog. We have not yet referred any
ministees to Joel so we cannot endorse his agency. – Jeff
The criminal process is traumatic for anyone. There are challenges personally and professionally that can be difficult to overcome. Currently, when someone is accused of a crime, there are limited resources for obtaining assistance with the process. Defense attorneys give legal advice and attempt to get the best outcome in the courtroom. What about the challenges outside of the courtroom? How does the accused find emotional stability, limit professional damage, and maintain relationships with family and friends? There is a significant need for professional advisors who have been through the process and can aid the accused through the personal hurdles of the pre-conviction, pre-sentencing, and post-incarceration periods.
I worked as a clinical psychologist for 15 years. Most of those years were spent in private practice. For a portion of that time, I served as the Chief Psychologist for the forensic branch of the New York State Office of Mental Health where I oversaw all OMH psychologists in the state prisons as well as leading treatment initiatives for inmates. Much like my friends in the legal professions, I have witnessed many people who suffer as a result of their own poor decisions or the choices of others. I have treated victims of a variety of crimes, but have also treated those who have violated the rights of others, paid their debt to society, and have struggled to put their lives back together. In spite of these experiences, I never fully appreciated the difficulties associated with the criminal process until I went through it myself.
In 2011, I faced charges related to Medicaid fraud. The fallout was swift and significant. I had to disclose to friends and family what I had done. This was especially difficult with my wife and children. I had to abandon a business I had worked to build and relied on to provide security for my family. There were unending financial consequences, and lifestyle changes that had to be made. On top of everything else, I had to prepare myself for jail time.
Since incarceration, I have been faced with the challenge of putting my life back together both personally and professionally. Many relationships had to be mended and my professional identity had to be re-established. These tasks have been daunting and I have received little direction in overcoming these trials. Those in the legal field are solely focused on obtaining the best possible legal outcome and are ill-equipped to tackle these ancillary issues in clients.
The current roles of mental health professionals in the legal process are limited to a few well-defined areas. In criminal court cases, psychologists and psychiatrists typically participate in evaluations to aid the legal process. These include psychiatric evaluation of those accused of criminal acts, pre-sentencing evaluations, probation evaluations, evaluating the credibility of witnesses, child abuse evaluations, competency evaluations, assessment of capacity, and psychological assessment of offenders. These professionals may also consult on factors pertaining to a trial such as jury selection.
Each of these evaluations has a specific focus. They tend to not be treatment-focused, but are instead focused on facilitating a fair trial and appropriate disposition of a case. After undergoing these evaluations, a defendant feels no more equipped to handle the process than before. The evaluations are often conducted not for the client, but for the court.
When people have been charged with a crime and are going through the legal process, psychotherapy is often the only choice they have in receiving professional emotional support and guidance. While on the surface, this may seem like an appropriate choice for exploring the emotions associated with being accused of a crime, there are a few reasons why this is often not true.
It is a continuing reality that many people perceive a strong stigma associated with psychotherapy. The Saginaw County Community Mental Health Authority[i]states, “One in five Americans has a diagnosable mental illness. Stigma will keep most of them from treatment.” Many people are fearful of the potential consequences of being seen as a mental health recipient. Moreover, clients going through the stress of the legal process do not want the additional burden of carrying a mental health diagnosis.
Psychotherapy also tends to have a broad focus. It is quite common for therapy to involve a “whole-person” focus instead of a problem-specific focus. Depending upon the provider’s therapeutic orientation, treatment methodologies could include extensive discussion of topics which, from the client’s perspective, can seem unrelated to the presenting problem. For example, someone suffering from panic attacks may spend significant time discussing their family of origin or failed relationships if the therapist deems it appropriate.
The vast majorities of clients who are going through the criminal process do not possess a mental illness and do not want to engage in a process where others may view them as “crazy”. An alternative to psychotherapy is likely to be viewed as welcomed by clients who are experiencing the criminal process for the first time, who are feeling overwhelmed, and/or who desire advisement specifically focused on the legal process.
I experienced the limitations of psychotherapy first-hand when I was engaged with the legal system. When I discovered that I was being charged with a crime, it felt like my life was exploding. Every aspect of life that seemed so certain for years was now unclear. Many questions came to mind in a matter of moments: Would my marriage survive this?; How do I tell my wife?; How do I tell my children?; What impact will this have on them?; Will I ever work again?; Will I be ostracized professionally and socially?; What will I have to give up? I didn’t have the answers to any of these questions and began looking for someone who could help.
I assumed that entering therapy would be my best option primarily because, as a psychologist, I was familiar with it, and there were really no other choices. I found a therapist with whom I was comfortable, and explained that I was looking for someone to be a source of support through this difficult time. Over the first few meetings, his focus changed to looking at how I came to engage in illegal activity. It became a character study with much attention placed upon my childhood and in “fixing” me. In retrospect, it is difficult to see how our discussions related to my original questions. I wanted to know how I would make it through that difficult time, not why I was going through it in the first place. My questions were specific to the situation, and I never received those answers while in therapy.
The most difficult aspect of the criminal process is not the prison experience but all of the changes in other areas of life. These include changes in the accused’s family, their work, and their social life.
Being accused of a crime and experiencing the criminal process can have a dramatic impact on loved ones. For the accused, it can be overwhelming in dealing with family members during this time. There will undoubtedly be questions from family regarding criminal details, and the explanation of these requires sensitivity and discernment. Spouses and significant others often have a strong emotional response to the client including shock, betrayal, and worry. Of particular importance is deciding how much information to disclose to any involved children. How the client handles these responses can have a significant impact on the future of those relationships.
The social impact of the criminal process can be significant. It is a common occurrence for a defendant to experience the loss of friendships. Depending on how widely publicized the case, the client may face a more general social isolation. Experiencing a breakdown of a support system during a time when support is needed most can be overwhelming. The client need not be a passive bystander. With the right approach, certain relationships can actually be strengthened through this process.
A defendant will likely experience job loss and an uncertain professional future as a result of a conviction. If the client was the primary source of financial support for his/her family, this presents another significant worry going forward. Recovering from a conviction professionally can be especially challenging with the advent of the internet. Among other things, it has proven to be a database in which crime and conviction information will always be available to the general public.
Once a prison sentence is completed, there continue to be hurdles to overcome. For many, professional re-establishment or re-invention is a primary task. Another important post-incarceration task is family reintegration. Although this is often a celebratory time for families, it is frequently a challenge for both the client and family to re-adjust to one another.
The Progressive Prison Project and Innocent Spouse and Children Project by Jeff Grant are two of a very few services attempting to accomplish these difficult tasks. In leading these Projects, Jeff is being transparent with his prior struggles, his prison experience, and his transformation. His transparency, combined with his knowledge base and spiritual perspective, is desperately needed by those charged with a crime. It is my hope and prayer that others who have been through the process will possess the same conviction to make a similar impact.
Joel Caldwell, Psy.D. is co-founder of Crisis Recovery Specialists. He and his psychologist wife assist individuals and families across the country with the personal, professional, and social fallout of the legal process. For more information about their services, visit www.recoveryfromcrisis.com.
Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
are Missions of
Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc., a Church
at Christ Church Greenwich
254 East Putnam Avenue
Greenwich, Conecticut 06830
15 East Putnam Ave., #370
Greenwich, Connecticut 06830
Central Ministry & Office:
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
Lynn Springer, Advocate
One in Five: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness; Saginaw County Community Mental Health Authority; www.sccmha.org