Teresa Caffese, chief attorney for the Public Defender’s Office, is leaving after 23 years to start a private practice. Caffese has been deeply involved in mental health policy and was in the spotlight in 2005 with the defense of LaShuan Harris, a mentally ill mother who killed her three children by throwing them into the San Francisco Bay.
Why do so many horrific crimes come down to mental illness?
What I’ve learned is that we do a poor job in treating the mental ill because we criminalize them rather than putting the resources there to get them out of the system. I saw this in the LaShuan Harris trial. She had tried to get mental health treatment for a long time, but she didn’t get it. The system was so dysfunctional that the links to keep her and her children safe just weren’t there.
Do people ever criticize you for defending killers?
No, they never criticize. They ask how you can do that. The answer to that is you hate the act; you don’t hate the person. Everybody deserves the best representation that money can’t buy.
Do you think the Community Justice Center has improved the legal system?
My concern is that we have to criminalize people to get the services they already have a right to have. They shouldn’t have to be in jail to get the kind of treatment they need. The criminal justice system should be for the real bad guys and girls. Unfortunately, when there are too many personal and political agendas involved, logic never wins. We have courts here at the Hall of Justice that could be doing the exact same thing. All these boutique courts are basically duplicating services.
If you could change anything about the system, what would it be?
I don’t think things need to be fixed, they just need to be improved. For example, the CJC: We could’ve just improved upon what already exists, instead of building a whole new one.