Agents Of Change


To the “silent majority” of the Nixon era, Miranda became a symbol not of law but of lawlessness and the “coddling” of criminals. The search for villains latched on to the Warren Court and everyone involved in the decision and some not, from the ACLU to President Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark. Sen. John McClellan rose in the Senate to declare the decision something close to the end of civilization, and Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell worked to create test cases to challenge the ruling.

But some law-enforcement leaders believed Miranda actually made their job easier, by standardizing methods of informing suspects of their rights and therefore validating confessions. Others argued that it kept the police honest, that the old ways had brutalized the police and made them lazy about developing evidence independent of confessions.

Miranda himself had a retrial and a prison term and then returned to society as an appliance deliveryman. He was playing cards at a Phoenix bar called La Amapola on January 31, 1976, when a fight broke out and within minutes he was stabbed to death. His attackers were immediately apprehended and their rights read to them in both English and Spanish from the Miranda card issued to all Phoenix police officers.

Flynn became a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, a widely respected figure in the state but never again a national figure and not a wealthy man. After he died, on a ski vacation in 1983, he was found to be in substantial debt. One of the few signs of his brief brush with greatness hung on the wall of his office: a ceremonial quill pen purloined from the offices of the Supreme Court, a misdemeanor for which he was never charged.


Only in the late 1970s did we begin to call them the homeless. There had long been American drifters, such as the railroad “bummlers” of the 1890s and the Okies and Texies of the Dust Bowl, but in the seventies the old images of Bowery bum and wino were replaced with those of an underclass of the permanently and structurally lost, a group pitied and feared, sleeping on heating grates, living in cardboard boxes.

The causes of homelessness have been much debated, and even the numbers are unclear, but the social and spiritual dimension of the problem is not. What has been clear is that whatever the role drugs and alcohol abuse and family disintegration play, mental illness is a key component. One of the few agreed-upon statistics about the homeless is that 30 to 40 percent of them are people who have been in or need treatment for mental illness.

The presence on the streets of so many of the mentally ill can be traced back to the good intentions of the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health and its chairman, Jack Ewalt, in the early 1960s. The commission’s report, five years in the making, set the Kennedy administration’s mental-health-policy priorities. John F. Kennedy had been one of the sponsors of the legislation that established the commission in 1955 and he was the President when its report was delivered.

Ewalt, the mental-health commissioner of Massachusetts, directed the commission to a series of conclusions that would, in time, lead to the national policy its advocates called deinstitutionalization and its critics called dumping. Ewalt’s story is one of goodwill and high ideals gone awry. It begins in the late forties, when the public was encouraged to think of mental hospitals as medieval places of shackles and shock treatments. Books such as Albert Deutsch’s The Shame of the State and Mary Jane Ward’s novel The Snake Pit strengthened this public image. A new generation of psychological theorists, from R. D. Laing to Erving Goffman, questioned the concept of “madness,” while state administrators despaired at their rising mental-health expenses.

Ewalt’s report was delivered to President Kennedy in March 1961. “It is recommended that all existing state [mental] hospitals of more than 1,000 beds be gradually and progressively converted into centers for the longterm, combined care of persons with chronic diseases, including mental illness,” the report urged. The commission also recommended replacing oldstyle hospitals with community health centers. “With present knowledge put to use, the nation could more than double the number of chronically ill mental patients returned to the community.”


Kennedy declared support for the plan. “When [it is] carried out,” he proclaimed, “reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.” He went so far as to argue that two-thirds of all schizophrenics could be treated and cured within six months.

Such optimism was nourished by theories expounded in several influential books about mental illness. The same year Ewalt’s report was delivered to President Kennedy, Erving Goffman’s Asylums and Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness were published, and a series of legal cases established the civil rights of the mentally ill and proscribed holding mental patients against their will.