Mental-Health Judge to Give Talk at FSC

Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren

    The Ledger  February 19, 2003


Broward County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren's rulings divert some offenders into treatment.glw.jpg (13150 bytes)

LAKELAND -- A man with a mental illness and brain injury, running in panic, collided with an elderly woman.

The woman fell, hit her head and died. The man, whose family had tried repeatedly to get help for him, was indicted on a manslaughter charge.

A grand jury, investigating how well the mental health and criminal-justice systems handled people with mental illnesses, found a critical shortage of treatment.

Broward County jails, meanwhile, were under a court order to reduce overcrowding. Many inmates had mental illnesses.

In response to those concerns, which erupted during the early to mid-1990s, the Broward County court system developed the nation's first mentalhealth court.

"It was the first time a community, as far as I know, has stood up in solidarity and said with a unified voice, `This is wrong. We do not want to act like this,' " said County Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, who presides over the court.

Lerner-Wren will discuss how her court works at 7 p.m. Thursday in a talk at Florida Southern College's William M. Hollis Seminar Room. She will be the Robert A. Stahl Visiting Lecturer in Criminology.

The mental-health court, which has become a national model, began in 1997.

It diverts people with mental illnesses, who are charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, away from the criminal-justice system and into treatment.

"That's the population that has historically been revolving through the streets, emergency rooms, jails and homeless shelters virtually without end," said Lerner-Wren, 43, who has been with the court since it began.

Thousands of people have gone through it, she said.

Broward County's mental-health court was the basis for federal legislation, passed in 1999, to start diversionary mental-health and substance-abuse courts nationwide.

"It was very innovative at the start and has proved to be a very effective strategy for reducing the criminalization of the mentally ill," Lerner-Wren said.

She and Risdon Slate, criminology professor at Florida Southern, said the Broward court was the nation's first court dedicated to the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.

Others followed. Slate said he has heard of 29 mental-health courts operating now.

"They don't all operate like her court does in Broward County, but many of them look to her court as a model," he said.

"I'd love to see one here, but it takes a lot of coordination between the various elements of the criminal-justice system and the mental-health system." Lerner-Wren said she holds mental-health court sessions each weekday, usually during the lunch hour, and one afternoon a week, in addition to having a full criminal court load.

"We're almost like a triage to get to the sickest," she said, adding that the court "tries to send a strong message of respect and dignity."

Slate, who observed the court during its first year, said she treated people appearing there "with dignity and compassion."

Before being elected a county court judge in the 17th Judicial Circuit in 1996, Lerner-Wren had been a public guardian for that circuit and had worked at the Advocacy Center for Persons With Disabilities.

A 1980 graduate of the University of Miami, she received her law degree in 1983 from Nova University Center for the Study of Law.

President Bush appointed her in July as one of 15 members on his New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. She chairs the criminal justice subcommittee.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's Florida chapter recently gave her an award for innovative work with the mentally ill, said Slate, who is on the chapter's board of directors.


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Updated 12/11/2003