This May, Broward’s Mental Health Court turns 19 years old. The court was an outgrowth of a number of negative conditions emerging in our local jail. This Included, jail overcrowding, and a recognition that people arrested on low level offenses were stuck in the criminal justice system. However, it would ultimately be the criminal prosecution of a young man named Aaron Wynn, who would ignite a grand jury investigation and a community call to stand up against the criminalization of people arrested with mental illness.
Many jurisdictions have already established specialized mental health or behavioral health problem solving courts or considering problem solving court expansion. Much like the scene from the iconic film, The Graduate where a family friend is intent on telling Benjamin Braddock what he should consider for his future – Plastics. My one word is dignity.
The value of dignity for Broward’s new court would be embedded into every design feature, legal process and goal. So how does dignity become actionable? The answer lies in both an abiding belief in recovery and understanding how best recovery can be achieved. Having been trained in psychiatric rehabilitation at Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation in a prior legal position, I knew the court design had to focus on the restoration of personhood, trauma and the vision of recovery to reclaim their lives. This, would be the hallmark of the mission of the court.
Just last week, a case manager and her client were in court. A member of Henderson Behavioral Health Center’s award winning First Episode Team. The news was good. The client felt much better and planning goals for her future. In 2008, this initiative began with several studies to evaluate the different aspects of coordinated specialty care. According to Dr. Kim Mueser, the Patient-Centered Care model (NAVIGATE) which includes a comprehensive team-based, patient-centered approach, combined with low doses of anti-psychotic drugs, is more effective in helping people experiencing a first episode of schizophrenia. For more information, see the National Institute of Mental Health – Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE).
The application of a person-centered approach requires formal training. Yet, in my view this core fidelity of Broward’s Mental Health Court is fundamental. We know from Florida and the broader nation that criminalization of people with mental illness is largely driven by under-funded, highly fragmented and dysfunctional care systems. These were the findings of the Broward County Grand Jury Report in 1994 and confirmed by The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health in 2003.
As Broward’s Misdemeanor Mental Health Court celebrates its 19th year, it will do so with a new set of goals. This includes educating and raising awareness about the benefits and legal responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title II and Olmstead. It is my hope that all mental health and criminal justice policy experts and treatment court judges join me in crossing the criminal justice chasm to the community, under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Together we can advance the exceptional work of the Center for Psychiatric rehabilitation, putting people first with dignity, and end the criminalization of people with mental illness and addictions in America.
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