Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ginger Lerner-Wren- The Criminalization of the Mentally Ill in America

The recent New York Times undercover report on July 14 detailing the "brutal and routine" violence by Riker's Island Correction's officers upon 129 inmates with serious mental illness over 11 months should have rocked a nation in disgust. One would expect outcries for immediate action given the extreme urgency of this new revelation. This news coming on the heels of the grotesque death of 56-year-old homeless veteran, Jerome Murdough, who was arrested on a simple trespass charge and "baked to death" in his Riker's Island Jail cell. Mr. Murdough suffered from schizophrenia and was unable to post a $250.00 bond. 
To be fair, the abhorrent abuse and neglect of persons with serious mental illness and other neurological disorders is so deep and widespread in the U.S. that in 2003, Human Rights Watch, a major international human rights policy center, published a Special Report, "Ill-Equipped,"documenting wide spread human rights violations in U.S. super-max prisons.
The over-representation of persons with serious mental illness and related neurological disorders in U.S. jails and prisons has been a human stain on this nation for decades. As reported by The Treatment Advocacy Center in its survey "Treatment Behind Bars: A State Survey," "Ten times more individuals with serious mental illness are residing in state prisons and county jails than in the state mental hospitals..." Clearly, jails and prisons are not humane treatment environments, and one asks when is the criminalization trend going be called out and treated with the urgency it demands.
I made my entre into the mental health arena in 1994, as a plaintiff's monitor and PAIMI attorney on behalf of the State of Florida's Protection and Advocacy Organization (The Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities, Inc.). My role, to oversee the implementation of a freshly-negotiated consent decree in a federal class action pertaining to South Florida State Hospital (Pembroke Pines, Florida). This decree included multi-level goals, including transforming existing community mental health systems of care. My crash course in mental health law, policy, consumer rights and community systems of care would include learning about the many barriers to care and the consequences of untreated mental illness, including that of incarceration. I recall my reaction when I first learned of the trend of the criminalization of the persons with mental illness.
I was shocked. Couldn't be, I thought. Not in America. Of course, that was several decades ago, and I am a judge, proud to be from a community (Broward County, Florida) that in the mid-1990s refused to accept this trend within its own criminal justice system. Broward's strategy, to create a human rights-oriented diversionary Mental Health Court. The first in America, which has diverted more than 16,000 persons out of jail and into community care and recovery. Many of our court participants returning to work, school, relationships and pursuing their lives with passion and purpose. Perhaps just as important, in this context, the court works to disrupt arrest cycles and prevent further escalation to prison, where it can. (Note: The Broward Mental Health Court is listed as a recommended strategy by HRW, "Ill-Equipped.").. read more: