The Judge Who Directs Nation’s First Mental Health Court

By Henry Saeman
January 1, 1998 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Fort Lauderdale, FL — The wonder is why it took so long to acknowledge that letting mentally ill persons roam the streets or linger in wretched jail cells or institutionalizing them without providing appropriate treatment has been ineffective.

         Finally, mercifully, Broward County, FL has taken the plight of a segment of mentally ill persons to heart, separating them from its criminal court. The county has created a mental health court where misdemeanor cases involving mentally ill persons get a sympathetic ear from a concerned judge who patiently refers them to treatment facilities, orders supervision in a nonrestrictive environment or tries to find alternate solutions to the jail cell.

         Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren is in charge of the parttime mental health court which has only existed since June. She has discarded some of the formalities characteristic of courtroom procedure and decorum, asking prosecutors and defense lawyers and, indeed, the defendants to participate in resolving cases. There is no iron fist as she seeks to settle disputes sensitively and prudently.

         On a typical court day in November, Judge Lerner-Wren spent about 30 minutes on each misdemeanor case she handled, wading compassionately through details of a fragile but feisty elderly woman endangering others by carelessly chain-smoking in a rooming house, a middle-aged man arrested more than 30 times for causing disturbances after inhaling paint and other substances, a woman endangering passersby by throwing rocks at their cars.

         Such cases have typified the revolving door of county jails–mentally suspect individuals lacking $25 bail money to be freed, who may then languish there for weeks, even months, and when finally released, return time and again.

         “Our purpose is to stop the civil and criminal system’s revolving door, to find adequate treatment for people who don’t receive it,” the 37-year-old judge said.

         While mental health professionals and administrators have long sought solutions for the destitute, cast-off masses, and the confused who aimlessly wander America’s streets, no one has solved the chronic problem. Treatment, housing and funding have been largely lacking.

         Authorities in Fort Lauderdale believed a mental health court for misdemeanor cases would be worth a try. A task force spent two years preparing. When it was finally decided, the court’s chief judge said Lerner-Wren, a new jurist, is the perfect person for the task.

 Informal dialogue in courtroom
    Lerner-Wren appears comfortable with her courtroom surroundings. She engages lawyers informally in dialogue to discover details of a case. Her interaction with defendants fluctuates from casual to firm. She knows when to take time for a lighthearted or soothing remark while addressing the fragile mortals before her.

         A 40-year-old woman claiming a dissociative disorder stood before her on several traffic charges lodged against her over a fairly prolonged period. “We are going to be able to work this through with your help,” Lerner-Wren told the defendant patiently. She tried to converse with a lethargic prisoner, his eyes giving off a blank stare directed at the ceiling, and quickly determined he needed evaluation at a nearby institution. “He is psychotic,” she told a visitor later. We shouldn’t turn him over to people unable to manage his condition.”

         Some defendants display bizarre behavior. One court day, she was forced to work around an offender who insisted on singing in the courtroom. Telling such a person to be quiet is useless, she said.

         What’s more important to Lerner-Wren is to find adequate treatment in the community, more housing, and to reduce the stigma. “These people need advocates,” she commented.

         Word about the Fort Lauderdale court has gotten out, and the response nationally has been overwhelming. An Associated Press article, carried nationally, produced extensive reaction. Where the second mental health court will be located is uncertain, but the idea promises to spread throughout the nation.

         Realizing that the patchwork system for treating the mentally ill needed somehow to be brought together, Broward County’s mental health task force was compelled to sort out an array of problems, such as potential conflicts over court jurisdiction, finding the money to make the new court operational, and requiring arresting police to note suspicion of mental illness in their arrest reports.

         Before being elected judge in July 1996, Lerner-Wren was a public guardian for indigent adults, overseeing a federal class action suit against the South Florida State Hospital. She became the plaintiff’s monitor when the case was settled, and remained for eight years until she decided to seek a judicial career.

January 1, 1998

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