Find Help, Find Hope!

Criminal Justice System

What Happens When My Family Member is Arrested?

If your family member/friend calls you and says that he/she has been arrested, help him/her stay calm and offer your help and support. Saying “how could you?” or “AGAIN?” is only casting judgment on the individual. Remember, dealing with a mental health condition is a lot of work in itself and sometimes, poor decisions are made. Stigma also exists. Your family member/friend may have been minding their own business and someone else felt uncomfortable. Remain calm yourself. After hanging up, then call a crisis line yourself if you need to.

If your family member/friend is being held in a city jail, remind them of the right to have an attorney present if being questioned by police officers or detectives. He/She will be screened for mental illness, as well as other health concerns, upon arrival. It is very important that they be direct and honest to benefit as much as possible from this screening process. Assure your family member that it is OK to discuss their physical and mental condition, diagnosis, medications, etc., with the staff conducting the screening, which includes Sheriff’s nursing staff and Jail Mental Health Service staff. It is important your family member feels safe to speak openly with the mental health screeners.

Important Considerations


Think carefully about posting bail for your family member. No one wants a loved one to remain incarcerated for any length of time. It is an unpleasant experience for them as well as the family. However, you must ask yourself the following question. Will your family member be able to comply with the terms of the bail and appear in court when required? Also, as hard as it may seem, jail may be a safer place for a person with severe mental illness who is in crisis rather than having your loved one wander the streets with no help at all. At least in jail they will be fed, will have shelter, and be given access to medication treatments.

Working with an attorney

Call the Public Defender’s office at the court where the case is being heard and ask for the name and phone number of the attorney who will be handling the case. It is more likely the attorney will be at his or her desk in the morning between 8:00 – 8:30 a.m. before court begins or later in the afternoon after 3:30 p.m.

If you do not reach the attorney, be sure to leave a message requesting a return call with your name, phone number, your family member’s name and, if possible, the case number and court date. Due to the attorney-client confidentiality requirement, there will be information the attorney may not be able to share with you. Remember, it is your family member, not you, who is the attorney’s client. You can also mail a brief summary (no more than three pages) of your loved one’s medical information to the office.

Inform the attorney of your family member’s condition and any information that may be beneficial to the case. Provide the attorney with an extensive medical/psychiatric/social/educational history of your family member in writing. Include hospitalization, diagnosis information, medication treatment, and the contact information of those doctors/clinicians and of facilities that have treated your family member in the past. This information will be very useful in pursuing the best outcome for your loved one. Attorneys are extremely busy and many will appreciate written or faxed correspondence.

Supporting and coping with a loved one who suffers from a brain disorder can be extremely challenging and stressful. Knowledge, as well as your love and fortitude, will be essential in helping you to become a strong and effective support system for your family member.

Most people charged with crimes are assigned a public defender if they can’t afford a private attorney. The public defender works for your family member, not you. You can ask your loved one to
sign a release that allows the attorney to share information with you.

Attend the initial hearing. Introduce yourself to the public defender. Be brief and polite. Thank them for their time and let them know you’re available to provide whatever information would be helpful.

Ask the attorney to consider any jail diversion or pre-trial release programs. If you don’t know about any programs, contact your NAMI Affiliate to find out if there is a jail diversion program, mental health court or other program to help defendants with mental health conditions in your community.

You may also hire a private defense attorney who has experience working with clients with mental health conditions.

View our list of Clark County Lawyers.

Advanced Directive

Having a Mental Health Advanced Directive in place before anything happens is always a good idea. For more information, visit our Preparing for a Crisis page.

Dealing with the Jail System


If your family member requires medication, he or she should inform the jail staff. If the jail staff hasn’t been informed, ask the jail’s physician to contact your loved one’s treatment team. You may need to contact your loved one’s doctor yourself. Do this in writing and follow-up with a phone call.

Your request should include:

  • Your loved one’s diagnosis
  • The type of medication
  • Contact information for the doctor
  • Your contact information

Learn more about medication in jail.

Mistreatment in Jail

If your family member is being mistreated in jail, contact CLEAR the Coordinated Legal Education, Advice and Referral hotline for any legal help. You may also
contact the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program (360-695-5313), the Disability Rights Washington (1-800-562-2702) or the Washington American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Going to Court

The arrest of a family member may mean they need to appear in court. Knowing what to expect can help you provide support for your loved one and hopefully lead to the best outcome.

If your loved one is released, they may still need to appear in court. If they do not want to appear in court, you can ask the attorney if there’s a way that the hearing can continue without their presence. If they need to attend, here are some things you can do to make the experience easier.

Have a friend drive and drop you off at the courthouse door. If you drive, arrive early to find parking. Security may search bags and ask you to remove clothing like a belt or jacket; if your
loved one will be upset by these procedures, ask if you can carry these items into the courthouse for them. Bring medicine in case you are in court for several hours. If allowed, bring snacks. Dress nicely; this will make a good impression on the court and show that you are taking the hearing seriously.