A MONTH AND A half ago, Auburn municipal court Judge Patrick Burns threw the book at 28-year-old Melanie Ager. Burns gave Ager a year in the King County Jail on a third-degree theft charge. Her crime? Stealing two pairs of shoes worth $31.98 from a Payless shoe store.

Although harsh, Ager's sentence seems plausible. Ager has a criminal record spanning across south suburban Seattle and Tacoma. She apparently accumulated one misdemeanor too many. But now that Ager is in the slammer, new questions have arisen. Burns had ruled that Ager was competent to stand trial. If Ager is so "competent," why is she confined to an isolation cell in the jail's psych ward? And why is she freaking out in that psych unit? Sources say Ager, who couldn't be reached for comment, is ignoring psychiatrists' requests that she take anti-psychotic medication, and she's refusing to respond to jail staff--answering questions instead with paranoid, nonsensical handwritten notes.

Her mother knows the answer. No matter what the courts say about her daughter's competence, Wanda Ager asserts that Melanie is severely mentally ill. She's been treated at every major psychiatric clinic in the area, including several visits to Western State Hospital, and she's been diagnosed with a host of psychological disorders. "Manic-depressive, bipolar schizophrenic," Wanda says. "The list goes on and on. Everybody comes up with something different."

Ager is yet another mentally ill person imprisoned on a misdemeanor charge. She's siphoning off taxpayer dollars in an institution not equipped to deal with her problems. The King County Jail is home to roughly 300 mentally ill people on any given day, making it the second largest mental-health institution in the state. The contradiction between the court's finding about Ager's competence and Ager's current and past mental conditions is another example of the callous way the criminal-justice system deals with the mentally ill.

Before Melanie Ager was tried and convicted, Judge Burns sent her to Western State Hospital for a psychological evaluation. The hospital, which already had a file on Ager, concluded that Ager did not pose an immediate danger to herself or to others. The psychiatrists felt that while Ager may have a "major psychotic disorder," it was in remission, with no signs that it was going to re-manifest.

In the court's opinion, that was enough. Burns was only looking for evidence from the evaluators about Ager's "legal competence." That phrase has only two criteria: Does Ager understand the charges that have been leveled against her? Can she aid her attorneys in her own defense? Burns took the Western State evaluation and concluded that Ager fit both criteria.

The problem with the legal competency issue is that it only pertains to the moments when a person is in court. While Ager was found to be relatively stable during her trial, she hasn't displayed such clear-headedness at other times. Western State included this additional note in the court records: "[Ager] has maladaptive patterns which manifest itself [sic] in self-destructive behaviors and threats, which most likely will be an ongoing trait, particularly [during] periods of stress or [when she's told] to socially conform her behavior."

Wanda Ager agrees with this part of Melanie's evaluation. For years, Melanie has lived on and off the streets, although Wanda says Melanie has had plenty of opportunities to do otherwise. Melanie's behavior has been a mixture of crazy paranoia and street-smart rationalism. Wanda tried to help her daughter, but she was forced to give up when Melanie threatened her with a kitchen knife. Wanda was forced to have Melanie arrested on fourth-degree assault charges--proof that, at times, Melanie Ager may be harmful to other members of society.

The case of Melanie Ager only proves that mental illness isn't necessarily a constant state. People with mental problems can have moments of lucidity--sometimes only with the help of medication--as well as moments of psychosis. The court ruled that Ager was fairly lucid during her trial; Ager contributed to that impression by refusing to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. A reliable jail source tells The Stranger that Ager is now behaving erratically and irrationally. The source says, for example, that Ager is "paranoid and guarded and quite focused on not being considered mentally ill."

Burns tells The Stranger that he had a tough time giving Ager a year behind bars, "[but] I'm not going to agree that hers is solely an issue of psychological problems." Burns also looked at Ager's prior criminal record, and comments from the prosecuting attorney and the court probation officer.

Ultimately, the court's opinion is vastly different from Wanda Ager's experience. Wanda can't deal with her own daughter anymore, but she knows prison isn't the answer for her, either. "She won't survive that long in jail," she asserts. "There's no way."