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The Criminalization of Mental Illness: Be a Voice for Justice

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The criminalization of people with mental illness remains one of the most significant human rights and criminal justice challenges in America. As a pioneer of America's first Mental Health Court dedicated to the decriminalization of people arrested with serious mental illness and co-occurring disorders, the call to action for mental health by Destination Dignity is welcome news.

On August 24th, 2015, Washington D.C., Destination Dignity, a collaborative project will bring together people with mental health disorders, family members, disability rights advocates, celebrities and leaders groups from across the nation. According to organizers, The March for Dignity represents the first step in building a national movement for change and public engagement around mental health in America.

As noted in news releases, this event is not related to any pending legislation or organization. Described as what will be a historic moment for people with mental health conditions, this march is an inaugural call to action and rallying cry for mental health consumers, families, civil rights leaders and advocates to demand dignity and an end to broad based discrimination, which includes criminal justice reform. One only needs to consider the recent New York Times article denoting the fact that a psychologist was selected as the new warden of Chicago's Cook County Jail to realize the severity of the challenges surrounding mental health and criminal justice.

When Broward County launched its Mental Health Court in 1997, I hoped our court would be successful and drive the decriminalization of people arrested for low-level offenses with mental health and substance abuse conditions. I'm thrilled to know we have diverted more than 17,000 people with mental health conditions out of our local jail.

The relevant lesson learned is that dignity is its own force. Dignity dispels fear and levels the playing field. Ultimately the promotion of dignity and respect becomes a reflection of fairness, the integrity of legal process, and the protection of civil and human rights. In my view, rejecting stigma in favor of equality and human dignity is the essence of social justice.

I believe the August March for Dignity and Call for Change, could not come at a better time. I have written extensively about therapeutic justice and the urgent need to find solutions to the criminalization of people with mental illness from a recovery and dignity perspective. As the policy debate on how best to reform criminal justice and reduce mass incarceration, it is imperative that matters pertaining to mental health needs and disability rights become a substantive part of the criminal justice reform debate. This includes economic benefits, housing, community case management, and access to treatment and supportive services.

In 2003, The President's New Freedom Commission issued its Final Report based upon recovery and a call to achieve the promise and transform delivery of mental health care in America. That transformation has yet to be fulfilled. America needs voices to carry that vision of dignity and recovery to our national leaders and state and local policymakers. It is beyond time to bring dignity and social justice to all Americans diagnosed with mental health conditions and/or disabilities. In truth, it has always been the consumer and citizen voices which drive social justice and cultural change. I hope you will lend your support to the March for Dignity and Change for Mental Health and become a voice for justice.