12/01/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

My Favorite Things: Strengthening the Rule of Law and Victims' Rights in America

Its holiday time and that means special gifts for family and people in your life. I am preparing to teach for winter semester, Nova Southeastern University, an interdisciplinary (doctoral) course in law, forensic psychology and criminal justice. The topic is mental health courts, therapeutic justice and creating system change through behavioral health and problem solving justice strategies. A long title for a broad subject, which deepens as the year's progress.

As the pioneer of The Broward County Mental Health Court, the nation's first problem solving court dedicated to the decriminalization of persons arrested with serious mental illnesses. I was privileged to be elected to the judiciary, at a time (1997) when Broward County's criminal justice system was going through a rigorous self -- examination of its own. Our local jail system was over-crowded with persons arrested with serious mental illness and many on minor, non-violent offenses. A federal class action related to local jail conditions and the lack of access to mental health treatment for inmates with serious mental illness was pending. Moreover, a local grand jury had just issued a scathing report on the state of Broward County's community based mental health system. It was a time of great leadership and reform.

A diverse group of leaders gathered from all corners of the criminal justice and mental health treatment system, including mental health and substance addiction providers, local NAMI leaders, Broward Sheriff's Office, mental health consumers and other inter-governmental and human service administrators. The group assembled to review complex system(s) processes and work together to seek solutions through system re-structuring. Its first recommendation would be the creation of the nation's first specialized court, dedicated to the decriminalization of persons with serious mental illness. Those individuals largely being arrested on low-level offenses, including those with serious mental illness who were unable to access needed behavioral health treatment, housing and other services. Individuals who had been revolving endlessly in and out of the jail system, emergency rooms, and streets or languishing in jail.

It was an exceptional time and has provided a terrific roadmap for leading community change and strengthened the rule of law for others to follow. As a judge and adjunct professor in therapeutic law and criminal justice, I think there is nothing more significant than protecting and promoting the rule of law. In both of my criminal divisions I live and breathe this overarching legal principle every day. What does it mean to lose confidence in your legal institutions? It is a valid question to ask this holiday season, in light of significant criminal justice policy reform efforts to reduce mass incarceration in the United States. In witness to the growing protests in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown, it seems a timely question. When we think of all the efforts which so far have not stemmed the tide of the trend of the criminalization of persons arrested with serious mental illness. Or, victims whose legal rights have not been adequately protected and are left in despair or anger? Why is it essential to maintain and vigorously protect the rule of law?

One of the final reading assignments I give to the students in my therapeutic justice course is a compilation of essays written by diverse legal experts on the future of our criminal justice system. Published by The Sentencing Project, in celebration of its policy organization's 25th Anniversary. This publication is devoted to strengthen the rule of law and sets out a vision for the next 25 years of criminal justice system reform. The essays describe a future system which is science driven and human rights focused, and reinforce basic constitutional rights which are essential to strengthen our rule of law. The concept of the importance of checks and balances of our three separate branches of government. These essays pertain to the criminal justice system and include an emphasis on the constitutional guarantees of a free press, effective legal representation, protection of victims' rights, and a strong public health approach to law enforcement. This includes efforts to reduce institutional bias and social and economic disparities which contribute to incarceration.

According to Boston College of Law Professor Robert Bloom, in his article, "Judicial Integrity: A Call for its Re-Emergence in the Adjudication of Criminal Cases, he quotes Justice Brandeis in, Olmstead v. United States (dissent) who states that "... in a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher... For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by example."

In these times, I think about the speech that Senator Robert F. Kennedy gave in Indianapolis on the night Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. We will continue to face many social and legal challenges in our nation. It is important to remember this holiday season that the goal is to always be cognizant and protective of the rule of law. The rule of law is dynamic and omnipotent, and it represents the best of America. This is important as we field situations and social conditions that may challenge our notions of justice and fairness. Yet, it is, as we say in law school, the law in action is ours to promote and protect. The rule of law is basic to our democracy, with judicial integrity at its core. The protection of fundamental civil rights, includes the protection of the victim's rights and we must honor leadership which articulates and promotes confidence in all our governmental institutions. This is the greatest gift of justice for all.