"More humane, more empathetic and listening more to the other side is what is needed to make justice function better".
Broward County (Florida, USA) judge Ginger Lerner-Wren has received several mentions for her innovations in the justice sector, offers conferences all over the world on conflict resolution methods within mental health courts and therapeutic jurisprudence. She participated in the mental health and revision of justice seminars "Justa-Ment: repensem la justícia - Salut Mental", co-organised by the UAB and the AFATRAC association and which took place on 6 February in Barcelona with the objective of considering the need of young people with mental health problems to be able to exert their right to health and restorative justice.
-What aspects does a Mental Health Court focus on? And why was it created, in 1997?
We created it because we saw that there was a huge problem affecting us as a community. Many people with mental disorders and conditions had been arrested and in 1993 we publicly recognised the problem. The prisons were beginning to fill with people with mental problems. There was a significant number of suicides within prisons as well. And judges were not sure what to do with these people, how to judge them, they were at a loss. The judicial system was a disgrace.
There was even a story in the New York Times by a famous journalist who established that US prisons were becoming psychiatric centres. And that set off the alarms. These courts are voluntary, the defendant decides whether she or he wants to participate or not. We were the first to create them in the United States, but now they are becoming popular in Australia too, for example.
-Has the situation improved after more than 20 years?
We've improved, but the system has not yet been sufficiently transformed. We need more policies on mental disorders and more resources. The system needs to be innovated in order to solve this problem. And we need the collaboration of all parts and services involved. Specialised courts work when there is a lot of collaboration. They will continue to exist because they save people and people feel comfortable participating in them, they do not feel like just a number; these courts are more personalised.
In fact, almost 23,000 people have not gone to prison in all these years thanks to these courts, because they were wrongly sent to prison when they should have been receiving treatment in a hospital or interned in a community service centre.
-You wrote the book A Court of Refuge: Stories from the Bench of America’s First Mental Health Court in which you explain your experiences in mental health courts. What is the message you wish to transmit with the book?
It is a learning tool and, particularly, for families who do not understand their child's behaviour and do not know how to respond in these cases. I sought to explain my experiences to help them understand what is a mental problem and how it can be dealt with.
-The title is significant: it speaks of courts as a refuge...
The title really illustrates the mission with which we created these specialised courts, which was to create a "sanctuary", in which they are correctly treated, with the message of "we are here for you", "we want to help you" and "we have the expertise and specialisation needed to help you". The families suffer and feel discriminated against; the stigma deeply affects them. That is why I talk about "refuge" and "sanctuary".
-How can we tackle this social stigma?
Listening to people who have mental health issues. Listening to their personal stories and experiences. Maybe you have a friend who is alcoholic and if you listen to them, you discover underlying conditions, like a depression or a specific disorder. Or you speak with a homeless person and if you stop and listen, you discover how they got to where they are.
The stigma must also be eliminated with education on mental disorders, learning about the facts and making it normal to talk about them, speaking naturally, like with any other disease. And we must understand that mental issues form part of our health in general. We must show and teach about mental problems. It is a type of activism, like what Demi Lobato did.
-You speak a lot about "therapeutic justice". What is that about? Is it particularly suitable for young people, and for people with mental health problems?
-Yes, of course. It began with cases in which people with mental health problems were being judged, but it has now become a general practice. With therapeutic justice, what we seek is to make the judicial procedure as humane as possible so that it does not become a negative experience. We asked ourselves what would be needed to assure drug addicts or people with mental health problems that they could enter the courtroom without being afraid. Always taking into account the law, of course. In order to achieve this we must change our tone, be active listeners, eliminate the technical and bureaucratic questions and simplify things as much as possible. With that you transform the energy within the courtroom, there is empathy among everyone,. Even if they disagree with the sentence, they feel well treated and taken into consideration, and that is essential.
-That is positive for all types of court cases, not only for mental health patients?
-Absolutely. It is a new way of conducting court cases. Defendants feel that they are treated well and listened to, even if the final decisions are tough to accept. When I was a public guardian, I had cases in which the defendants had disabilities and I tried to make sure the decisions were made jointly and with the agreement of the people affected. They felt treated correctly, empowered and with self-determination. It was a way of dignifying them, as well.
-You lecture at NSU-Florida, New Southeastern University. How do you transmit to your students, future lawyers and judges, your sensitivity with regard to people with mental health problems who have committed crimes? What ultimate message do you give them regarding this subject?
-I offer them the theory, what they laws dictate, etc., but I also firmly transmit the need for innovation and “smart justice”. We need passionate professionals who can solve the problems faced by people and society. We must solve very complicated situations, but we need to do it differently. It is not only the theory, it is the way theory is put into practice.
-Are jurists sufficiently trained to meet these needs?
-It is not part of the Law syllabus, nor do future judges learn about therapeutic justice. There isn't a culture of promoting this movement and there needs to be one.
-The way you speak, how you say what you say, seems very distant from the conception that we have of judges.
-Well, I don't know about that, there are many other judges who share the same opinion. We must work together to promote this new type of justice. We must innovate. We need visionaries who are passionate about what they do and want to solve these problems. There is also a need for justice centres or incubators. If you find a way to solve a problem and have a great idea, you can devise a strategy and look for a team that can see it through. Another way of doing justice is necessary.