FLORIDA: Broward County Mental Health Court

March 31, 2017
News Type:  From the Field
State:  Florida

In 1994, an 85-year-old woman fell and ultimately died after being pushed by a man outside a supermarket in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The 25-year-old man arrested for the assault had been periodically involved with both the legal and mental health systems since suffering a motorcycle-related brain injury in 1986. He was declared incompetent to stand trial and awarded almost $18 million to cover medical care and past abuse and ineffective treatment at two state-run mental hospitals.

This tragedy was the latest and most serious of a number of criminal cases in Broward County involving persons suffering from mental health problems. Related public outcry prompted a grand jury investigation of the disposition of offenders suffering from mental illness who came before the court, including several who died by suicide while in jail. The investigation found that there was a critical shortage of mental health treatment for people involved with the justice system.

In response to this finding, a county circuit court judge convened a Criminal Justice Mental Health Task Force that included representatives from the public defender’s office, state attorney’s office, sheriff’s office, county government, social service organizations, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The work of this task force led to the creation of the Broward County Mental Health Court, the nation’s first mental health court, which was established by an administrative order from the chief circuit judge in 1997. The mental health court received no funding, but drew on existing resources from the court and social service systems. Judges who were already serving in the 17th circuit volunteered to preside on the mental health court over and above their regular duties.

The Broward County Mental Health Court is a voluntary program that allows people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities to be diverted to treatment rather than tried and, if found guilty, fined or sent to jail. People arrested for misdemeanors are screened by advanced clinical doctoral students from Nova Southeastern University, who are assigned to the Broward County public defender’s office. Judges from other Broward County courts can also refer defendants to the mental health court. The court’s goal is to break the cycle of crime, court involvement, and imprisonment—which is costly for the public, defendants, and the community. As of this writing, the mental health court has diverted more than 20,000 people from county jails and significantly decreased recidivism, compared to people arrested and jailed. It has also inspired many other court systems to establish similar diversionary programs.

Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, the first judge to preside over the mental health court, understood the association between mental illness, involvement in the criminal justice system, and suicide. She began to integrate suicide prevention activities into the program, eventually adapting the Zero Suicide approach as a core component of the court. In 2016, Judge Lerner-Wren became a member of the Executive Committee of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

For more information:

Mental Health Courts: Raising the Bar for Suicide Prevention – In this SPRC Director’s Corner, Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren reflects on her experience with mental health courts and the role of the Zero Suicide approach in the judicial system.

Emerging Judicial Strategies for the Mentally Ill in the Criminal Caseload: Mental Health Courts in Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, San Bernardino, and Anchorage – A comprehensive description of the Broward County Mental Health Court can be found in Chapter two of this U.S. Department of Justice monograph.

Settings:  Behavioral Health Care, Justice System
About Suicide:  Behavioral Health Disorders