Broward County Judge
Ginger Lerner-Wren's rulings divert some offenders into treatment.
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