12/15/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Staring Into the Abyss of the Criminalization of Persons With Mental Illness

It is another challenging day in Broward's Mental Health Court. We are a few months away from 17 years in operation, thousands have been diverted out of Broward's jail with linkage to community treatment and services. Our efforts to stop the revolving door is fueled by an unqualified vision of recovery and shared social justice mission. Thanks to the enduring dedication of our community-based treatment providers and criminal justice stakeholders, we boldly face the abyss of the criminalization of persons with mental illness every day. We are quick to embrace the wins. This is not boasting, but our way of sustaining a criminal justice and therapeutic battle that is derived from a chronically under-funded and broken system of mental health (behavioral) community care. Florida's problems are representative of a massive scale in America's jails and prisons.

Just recently, Washington Post opinion writer George F. Will penned a compelling editorial on the death of Eric Garner, entitled, "Eric Garner Criminalized to Death," and remarked "that the nation might have experienced sufficient affronts to its sense of decency. It might at long last be ready to stare into the abyss of its criminal justice system." He states that "the radiating ripples from the nation's overdue reconsideration of present practices may reach beyond matters of crime and punishment, to basic truths of governance."

This view could and should include those individuals who are being warehoused in America's jails and prisons due to serious mental illness and salient factors of under-funded community-based systems of care that lead to crisis and an over-abundance of persons with serious mental illness being incarcerated. To the families and individuals who have been denied access to community mental health and substance abuse treatment and services, the over-arching question is: What about their plight?

When Broward County established the first mental health court in the U.S. in 1997, we understood this was a back-end criminal justice response. The criminal justice system may be the system where those who are ill end up. Yet it is does not represent a proper system of authentic solutions. The governance related to sufficient state-wide and local funding of mental health or behavioral care delivery systems is not within the judicial sphere. Clearly, the true fixes lie in the legislative and executive branches of all levels of government. No family or community should have to wait for crisis to address a psychiatric disorders. Of course, the criminal justice system and law enforcement agencies play a crucial and important role in pushing back against the criminalization of persons with serious mental illness. Yet, as documented by USA Today news, the core problems and fixes remain vexing and unresolved.

When I think about the phrase "staring into the abyss," I am reminded of that famous quote in Oliver Stone's classic film, Wall Street. Just as Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is about to be arrested for insider trading, Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) remarks: "A man looks into the abyss, there's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps man out of the abyss." It is critical to integrate the criminalization of persons with mental illness in the broader narrative of criminalization, governance and the question of moral character and who we are as a nation.