Courts of Dignity

By Meaghan Winter

This article from the May/June 2021 issue of Psychotherapy Networker highlights the deplorable way the the criminal justice system treats those who suffer with mental illness, often causing worsening conditions and pushing them down a painful and dangerous path.

Mental Health Courts, also known as problem-solving courts, offer a chance of a trauma informed, therapeutic approach for those with mental illness as an alternative to becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system. These courts take dedication and, when implemented successfully, offer a ray of hope in the dark landscape of the criminalization of mental illness.

Replacing Punishment with Compassion

Ginger Lerner-Wren, before she became a judge, worked at the Broward County Office of the Public Guardian, where she learned repeatedly just how little access to psychiatric support was available in South Florida. “Families came in begging me to take over the care of their loved ones with mental illness because they couldn’t find the help they needed in the community,” she remembers. In her work there—including being a legal advocate for people with disabilities—she was constantly confronted with people who couldn’t get treatment for themselves or their family members. “I was feeling helpless,” she recall

A few years earlier, in the late ’80s, also in Broward County, Jane and Alexander Wynn were desperately seeking help for their son Aaron. When he was 18, Aaron had been hit by a car and suffered severe head trauma. The vibrant young man who’d loved swimming in the ocean, playing chess, and riding his motorcycle was transformed into a person they barely recognized—alternately withdrawn and consumed with rage.

At that point, the Wynns, too, received a terrible lesson in how difficult it was to find psychiatric care. When, for example, they tried to admit Aaron to a state psychiatric hospital because he was unable to function in daily life, they were told it had a two-year waitlist. They couldn’t afford the exorbitant cost of a private care facility. In 1988, three years after his accident, Aaron was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer, found mentally incompetent to stand trial, and sent by the Florida Department of Corrections to two different state psychiatric facilities. One of those hospitals kept him in solitary confinement for two-and-a-half years. During much of that time, he was strapped to a bed in a darkened room.

After Aaron was discharged, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A couple of years later, while buying groceries at a local supermarket, he suffered a psychotic episode, ran out of the store, and collided with an 85-year-old woman, who died from her injuries. Aaron was charged with murder. When Howard Finkelstein, the assistant district attorney and public defender assigned to his case, dug into his history, he demanded a grand jury investigation into Broward County’s mental health system. The grand jury issued a scathing report, as a result of which Aaron Wynn later received $18 million to compensate for his suffering and to cover his care in a private residential psychiatric hospital.

The grand jury’s report became a call to action for Finkelstein and his colleagues. It revealed the extent to which local mental health care services were chronically underfunded and people with mental illness were overrepresented in the criminal justice system, routinely shuffled between jails, emergency rooms, and shelters, without receiving adequate care. The report made clear the pressing need for criminal justice professionals to work with more accountability and collaboration to provide continuous care for people with mental illness.

In its failure to provide adequate treatment, Broward County was not an outlier.

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