Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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A Court of Refuge: Stories from the Bench of America’s First Mental Health Court

As a longtime reporter, I’ve come to see trends in crime and homelessness that seem to converge at a few key points- one of them, mental health. It’s my personal observation, not necessarily supported by any research. 

It concerns me, both from a place of compassion, as well as from a place of responsibility as I see so many streets in my beloved Honolulu overrun with a growing number of homeless tents. 

A Court of Refuge. Courtesy: Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren

A new book penned by Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren with Rebecca A. Eckland, A Court of Refuge: Stories from the Bench of America’s First Mental Health Court, piqued my curiosity about the inner workings of a mental health court, which redirects offenders from jail to community-based treatment with intensive supervision. Hawaii has its own mental health court, established in 2005,

Judge Lerner-Wren’s, set up in 1997 in Broward County, Florida, is the first in the country. “For the first time in the United States, a specialized problem-solving court was dedicated to the decriminalization of people with mental health problems,” she writes, and she headed up this effort to create a “refuge” for those arrested.

Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. Courtesy: Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren

The problem, she outlines, is that the traditional legal system criminalizes those who suffer from psychiatric conditions, and lays out 175 pages of explanation and examples to bring depth to cases that otherwise might seems like open-and-shut proceedings.

Mental health issues still bear so much stigma – as she mentions in one story of a Jamaican father who wouldn’t acknowledge his son’s mental illness. In fact, I had never considered that society has been criminalizing mental illness as “a tried and true method of social control and management since the beginning of recorded history” until I read it here. But it makes sense – you see movies or hear about horrible news stories where people have locked up their mentally ill relatives in cages or basements. 

Judge Lerner-Wren packs her book with poignant stories from the bench, including one about then-18-year old Aaron Wynn who seemed like a bright, athletic, college-bound kid with his life ahead of him, until a motorcycle accident left him severely brain damaged. 

He developed anger issues, but couldn’t get admitted to South Florida State Hospital. Three years after his accident, in 1988, he was arrested for assault and ended up in forensic hospitals for mentally ill persons, where he spent two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, strapped to a gurney.

When released in 1991, his mental condition had deteriorated to the point where he was often delusional and diagnosed with PTSD and schizophrenia. Two years later, he had another psychotic episode that led to a manslaughter charge. Would a mental health court, had it existed then, helped steer Wynn’s life in a different direction?

When I read of – or report on – arrests, I wonder how much of that stems from addiction or mental illness, and hope these people can find their way.

In A Court of Refuge, Judge Lerner-Wren tells the story of how the court grew from an offshoot of her criminal division without the aid of any federal funding, to a revolutionary institution that has successfully diverted more than 20,000 people with serious mental illness from jail and into treatment facilities and other community resources.

She offers conditional hope: that even though mental health courts offer some relief, they are only one component in the social system, which requires a vast overhaul of the policies; and the exciting possibility of using courts as a place of healing.


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