THE BLOG
09/23/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

The Urgent Need to Stand Against the Criminalization of Persons With Mental Illness

(Author's note: I was asked to share my vision of social justice in support of the 2014 Mashable and 92Y Summit being held this week as part of the UN Foundation to Unite YOU. This is my response.)

When Broward County Florida mental health-criminal justice community stakeholders reached consensus to implement a specialized mental health court to problem solve and combat the criminalization of persons with mental illness in our county in 1997, I was tapped based on my disability law and civil rights background working for persons with mental illness and disabilities. We did not know this type of court had not been done before, nor did we care.

Our social justice mission was simple -- to do something. Broward's mental health court had no funding, grants or budget. Yet our community had passion and a shared vision that justice demanded a stop-gap fix that would use the court process to integrate existing resources and be accountable to court participants, if they wanted the help. The concept that a judge working in tandem with lawyers and our community could break the dehumanizing cycling in and out of jail, hospitals and the streets was our something. Through the application of Therapeutic Justice (TJ), a court was converted to a place of refuge.

After 16 years of practicing TJ in both of my criminal divisions, I realized that all of the conversations share a common theme. Endings are beginnings in a therapeutic court. Respect and dignity, which underscore authentic inquiries about what are your personal goals and an acknowledgement of a person's strengths and assets, often lead to policy lessons about the harsh realities of poverty and the collateral consequences of dysfunctional families, domestic violence, and substance abuse, trauma and disparities in health and education, which lead to broken lives in need of healing and repair.

There is not a day that goes by in my courtroom where conversations surrounding criminal (misdemeanor) cases and legal process do not ultimately shift to the larger matters of life. Whether in Broward's specialized Mental Health Court or my traditional criminal division (I manage two divisions), the long standing legal application of TJ has led to a unique legal experience which includes introspection, empathic exchanges, and a broad range of discussions. This often includes public health data, the latest policy research findings about the consequences of untreated mental illness, unresolved trauma, the vision of recovery, local family educational, advocacy, resources, and support services through The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America (MHA) and additional topics on the import of developing a dynamic life plan, successful jail reentry research, and the significance of support networks, education, literacy development, executive decision making and strategic career/vocational planning.

Thanks to the pioneers of TJ, the (late) scholar and law professor Bruce Winick and law professor and scholar David Wexler, the idea that the intersection between court process, psychology and the social sciences could "restructure the role of courts as an agent of healing" has led to global justice innovations and opened the door to powerful and creative opportunities for justice systems to respond to vexing social problems.

Over the years, the ability to transform and broaden court process though procedural justice to include storytelling and empathic exchanges at various points in the court process have led to extraordinary conversations, new epiphanies for the participant, including health literacy education about mental illness, the research surrounding the unresolved impact of adverse childhood experiences and trauma (The ACE Study), and inter-active offerings about recovery how to rebuild and re-boot a life.

With these conversations always comes the unexpected. Sometimes tears, sometimes laughter, a helpful comment by another defendant, which one may think is "out of order" but, in this context, these utterances have typically added great value to all involved. Conversations then become a virtual journey from what is -- to what is possible, if you do the work. Our social justice mission was simple -- to do something. Broward's mental health court had no funding, grants or budget. Yet our community had passion and a shared vision that justice demanded a stop-gap fix that would use the court process to integrate existing resources and be accountable to court participants, if they wanted the help. Therapeutic Justice is the ultimate gift to legal process -- but no substitute for robust and functional mental health care delivery systems.

When the Mental Health Court began it was our greatest hope that it would inspire policy makers to fill these policy vacuums. To inspire the funding of integrated and robust mental health care delivery systems and to deliver on the promise of the landmark Americans with Disability Act. Since its inception in 1997, Broward's Mental Health Court has overseen the diversion of over 16,000 individuals out of our local jail system (note: In 2013, the court was recognized by The Hague Institute for Innovation and Internalization of Law (HiiL) Foundation for its innovation in social justice).

Our court has had the privilege of witnessing extraordinary stories of recovery, individuals being reunited with their families, returning to work, school and creative pursuits in the community. We remain steadfast in our hope that domestic and global leaders and policy makers will prioritize mental health and enhance access to evidenced based treatment, services and supports and leverage technology, cultural and spiritual assets to achieve the goals of the World Health Organization's Call to Action, there is no health without mental health -- and take a critical and urgent stand against the criminalization of persons with mental illness.