Christopher Sharikas is serving two life sentences in a Virginia prison, plus 30 years, for a crime that carried a seven- to 11-year recommended term.
He was 16 years old when he was arrested for stealing a car and assaulting its owner. He has spent 20 years behind bars.
Arguably, his 1997 crime is not why he remains imprisoned.
Sharikas suffers from severe mental illness. Our society has relinquished control of him to our criminal justice system. And our mental health system is so broken that it failed to help him when it should have.
Sharikas is one of the more than 2 million Americans with mental illness sent to jail each year. He was one of the 383,000 incarcerated in our jails and prisons as of 2014. Inmates with serious mental illnesses remain incarcerated nearly twice as long as others charged with identical crimes.
Many inmates with mental illness can’t follow rules and collect additional time. Others are held in solitary confinement because their illnesses make them hard to control. A Department of Justice report found that 13% of mentally ill prisoners in federal facilities were released directly into communities after spending, on average, more than two years in isolation.
Sharikas’ Palestinian-born mother, Sana Campbell, says her son has been raped and repeatedly beaten while incarcerated. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 15, his family tried unsuccessfully to get him help before voices told him to drive to Manhattan from his suburban Northern Virginia home.
Needing a car, he attacked a 24-year-old woman, stabbing her once in the back before fleeing in her vehicle, which he crashed. His victim worked in the prosecutors' office. Sharikas smirked during his sentencing hearing, and a furious judge accused the teen of “insulting … the victim.”
“It’s a gamble to say that a child — he’s a child — could be cured, treated, made safe,” said the judge, according to The Washington Post. He displayed a woeful ignorance about the recovery rates of those with serious mental illnesses, especially teens.
Ignoring the recommended 11-year sentence, he condemned Sharikas to spend his life in prison even though he had been deemed “extremely psychotic” when first arrested, and his victim recovered.
At one point, Sharikas said he could be the next Jesus Christ.
The mass closing of state mental hospitals, a lack of community-based psychiatric services, and civil rights laws that require a mentally ill person to pose an immediate danger to themselves or others before families can intervene have led to our jails and prisons becoming our asylums, causing Sharikas and others who need treatment to be punished, primarily for getting sick.
Sharikas’ only chance is for outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to pardon him and ask a different judge to have him civilly committed to a state mental hospital to be held indefinitely until he can recover from his mental disorder.
Sadly, such a compassionate move is unlikely in a society that prefers to jail the insane rather than treat them.
Pete Earley serves on a federal panel recently created to advise on mental health reform. He is the father of an adult son who has recovered from serious mental illness and who now works as a peer counselor.