An Unlikely Savior to End the Criminalization of Mental Illness

Aaron Wynn, was an unlikely savior. This is how PBS, in its Special Frontline Report described Aaron, a 25 year old man from Broward County, Florida who sparked a new system of justice with the establishment of America's first Mental Health Court.

Aaron's spiral into this nightmare was caused by a devastating brain injury, a broken community system of care, and an ill-equipped criminal justice system. Subsequently, and according to medical records, Aaron experienced an estimated 19,000 hours of seclusion and restraints in a Florida Forensic Hospital.

Aaron's story reflects the urgent need to end the criminalization of people with mental illness in America, a primary goal of Broward's Mental Health Court.

In 1985, 18 year old Aaron Wynn was struck by a car on his motorcycle and sustained traumatic brain injury. As a result of multiple injuries, Aaron was left severely disabled and without proper medical and rehabilitative services. Aaron's parents tried to get treatment and services for, but were continually denied access.

In 1988, Aaron's behavior became increasingly unmanageable. An encounter with a police officer led to Aaron's arrest. A judge determined Aaron was legally incompetent to proceed and ordered commitment to a Florida state forensic hospital. Upon release, Aaron's psychiatric condition worsened, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD.

In 1993, while shopping at a Broward County grocery store, Aaron suffered a psychotic break, ran out of the store and collided with an elderly woman. She tragically hit her head on the sidewalk and died. Aaron was being charged with murder.

Broward County Public Defender, Howard Finkelstein, understood the failures of Broward's mental health system. He initiated a grand jury investigation. Within a year, the grand jury issued a scathing report, finding a community system in shambles, severely underfunded and lacking a continuum of care. Moreover, the report uncovered, a leaderless system, which was accountable to no one. A local criminal justice and mental health task force, after years of discussion, took a leap of faith.

In 1997, with no specific solutions in sight, Broward's task force adopted Howard's concept for a specialized court. Later, Howard would elaborate on his vision and explained, He wanted to establish a court of refuge. A Court with a specialized judge, who would not heap more harm upon individuals already victimized by a criminal justice system, ill-equipped to respond to the complex needs of people being arrested with serious mental illnesses and other disorders.

In 2000, congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the "America's Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project Act", which gave grants to communities interested in establishing mental health courts. To date, Broward's misdemeanor mental health court has diverted over 18,000 court participants from its local jail into treatment and care.

So what is the true legacy of Aaron Wynn? I have consistently taken the position that mental health courts were not intended to be a fix for the vexing social problems under-funded and broken systems of mental health care.

It is time for our policy makers on every level of government, to do the right thing to prioritize and invest in community behavioral health care. It is not only the legally appropriate thing to do based upon the Americans with Disabilities Act under Olmstead. It is the smart thing to do from all social and economic perspectives.

America is looking for champions who understand that investment in community mental health is critical good mental health care, wellness and public safety. America is in need of an unlikely savior to end the criminalization of people with mental illness.

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