Broward County’s Mental Health Court: Standing Up Against the Criminalization of Mental Illness

The nation's first mental health court turns 18 this month, and more than 17,000 people have received treatment instead of a jail sentence.

“Broward’s Court stands for the ideals that people with mental illness and co-occurring disorders deserve access to community-based treatment and services, not jail.” —Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren

This month marks the eighteenth year of The Broward County Mental Health Court in Florida. The development of Broward’s pioneering court tells the story of a handful of local criminal justice leaders and community mental health stakeholders trying to respond to the vexing social problem of the criminalization of people with mental illness in their community. In Broward, the local jail had become the bellwether of a chronically underfunded, community-based system of care.

Broward County a Microcosm for the Nation

In 1997, I was elected as a county court judge. My prior disability rights experience included directing Broward’s Office of Public Guardian and Plaintiff’s Monitor in a deinstitutionalization federal class action, regarding South Florida State Psychiatric Hospital.1 I was assigned to a regular criminal division and appointed to spearhead Broward’s new Mental Health Court.

The design of the court was based upon my prior specialized training and advocacy experience. The court would be guided by the principles of therapeutic jurisprudence.  

The new court would be voluntary and dedicated to the decriminalization of people with mental illnesses who were arrested for minor offenses. The court had no funding. I would rely on existing community providers to collaborate and share resources with the court.

Delegations of mental health experts and advocates visited the court in search of solutions. Within the year, reporter Fox Butterfield of The New York Times would confirm what communities already knew — that U.S. prisons had become America’s new asylums.2

The Court Diversion Process

The goals of Broward’s Mental Health Court are multi-faceted. The court process is creatively structured for diversion into the community. Integrated court procedures include in-court clinical triage and psycho-social screening and assessment. Primary goals of court diversion ensure that those in need of acute care are treated in a more appropriate community setting.