You know what I like about New Zealand (aside from the fact that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed there)? I like that their courts prosecute “dishonesty.” In the States, we have all kinds of legal jargon. New Zealand doesn’t go in for that.
Take the case of Andrea Phipps, who just got home arrest instead of jail time because she blamed her actions on her bipolar disorder. Here’s what the Press of New Zealand had to say about her case:
Phipps, who has 72 previous convictions for dishonesty and has served a series of jail terms, including a term for attempted murder, had committed a further 20 offences over a four-year period.
She had previously pleaded guilty to ripping off two finance companies, filling out false loan applications in the name of her mother-in-law to get money for a boat and a car, which were later sold. She repeatedly bought time by issuing bad cheques including one to a solicitor.
She then faxed the solicitor’s receipt for that cheque to a finance company as proof that payment was on its way, which caused further losses when the car involved was released for sale before the cheque was dishonoured.
Phipps befriended a neighbour and found out her PIN when they went shopping. Then she took the woman’s bankcard and withdrew thousands of dollars.
She took cheques from her employers and used them pay a phone bill and a motel bill.
She paid a friend for a cheque for $28.18 and then altered it to $2801.18 and used it for a payment on a tenancy.
She used false documents to apply for jobs – two of them involving airport security clearance, which resulted in more charges today.
Her lawyer suggested that her feelings of grandeur from her “genuine illness” caused the latest bout of “dishonesty” and that she’s actually quite honest when she’s taking medication.
According to the Canterbury Star, the judge told her:
“This was a gross breach of trust in relation to friends, employers and authorities. The level of premeditation and deception was very high.
“You claim to have little memory of your offending, which I find hard to believe. You say that when you’re stressed, you turn to crime. I know a number of people who suffer from the same illness and they certainly don’t turn to crime as you do.
“You have 72 previous convictions for dishonesty. It is thought your mental state was a factor in some of your offending, and I agree.
“But for your mental health issues, a full-time custodial sentence would have been appropriate.”
Cases like this present a difficult challenge for mental health advocates. On the one hand, it’s frustrating to hear about people like this and have their illness associated with bad deeds. There are plenty of us with bipolar disorder who are not fraudsters, and it just sullies the image of people with mental health when stories like this are published.
On the other hand, what if she is being (uncharacteristically) honest about her diagnosis and really was impelled to do these things as a result of her symptoms? In that case, we’d certainly want her to be treated with sensitivity and not just consigned to a criminal justice system if that’s not what’s best for her.