By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
We’re asking cops to do too much in this country…. Every societal failure we put it off on the cops to solve…. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems. – David Brown
Another Mental Health Awareness month has come and gone in relative silence.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents languish in jail for minor offenses that can be characterized as a severe emotional crisis or “crimes of homelessness, poverty, or substance-use disorders” – all related to sickness rather than crime.
In many cases, social workers and behavioral health specialists might best serve as first responders. Yet, too often, police encounter the mentally ill via these “nuisance calls,” locking them up and sequestering our “annoyances” away in jails or prisons.
This quiet and hidden reality has caused our jails to become de facto mental hospitals, a function jails were not designed and are ill-equipped to perform.
Since 2016, Judge Lindsay Navarre has worked to increase community safety by addressing untreated mental illness. I spoke with Judge Navarre about her work in Lucas County at the intersection of mental health and community safety.
Perryman: Please tell our readers a bit about your background.
Navarre: I was elected as a judge in the Lucas County Common Pleas Court back in 2016. So, I’ve been serving Lucas County proudly for the past five years as a trial court judge.
I am involved in quite a few efforts on the Criminal Justice Committee. I am a board member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and a co-chair of the behavioral health and criminal justice committee. It’s one of the things I do to make our community a safer place.
Perryman: How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
Navarre: That’s a great question. I would say that I treat everyone who comes into my courtroom with fairness. I treat them as human beings. I know that nobody should ever be defined by their worst day. Still, I would say that community safety is at the core of every decision I make as a common pleas court judge.
Perryman: What changes would you like to make to our justice system?
Navarre: I have focused my first term on changing our system regarding how we treat criminal offenders who have mental illnesses. I think that so many resources are dedicated to offenders who have substance abuse, which is a good thing. However, I’d like to see as many resources devoted to offenders who have severe mental illness.
Perryman: A majority of serious mental health disorders are not being treated. I know that funds have been scarce for many community mental health treatment centers. Yet, these mental health centers struggle to keep up with the demand for their services. Let’s talk about access to mental healthcare and how our jails and courts have become de facto mental healthcare providers themselves.
Navarre: Well, you’re absolutely right about that. Two million people with mental illness go to jail in the United States every year. In Lucas County, between 22 to 25 percent of inmates booked in the Lucas County Jail screen positive for severe mental illness. So, jails, prisons and courts have replaced mental health facilities as the primary institutions for treating and housing people suffering from mental health disorders.
Perryman: How has the criminal justice system taken over mental health care?
Navarre: Not to go back too far but, in my assessment and research, the place we find ourselves now really started back in the 1960s with the passage of the Community and Mental Health Act passed by Congress and signed by President John F Kennedy.
That bill was undoubtedly full of good intentions to make sure those hospitalized with mental illness were treated humanely and treated within their communities when appropriate. The act also created financial incentives for states to close their mental hospitals and promised federal funding to provide community-based outpatient treatment.
Perryman: So, what facilitated the problem we have today?
Navarre: Many of these state hospitals closed, but that promised federal funding never came through. That’s why we’re here. We’re now housing large percentages of the mentally ill in homeless shelters, jails, and prisons. So, again, it’s tied to funding and connected to access to care.
Perryman: Can you talk about the links between mental health treatment and long-term community safety?
Navarre: As I said earlier, community safety is at the core of every decision I make as a common pleas court judge. But, short-term and long-term community safety are two very different things.
Short-term community safety is easy; if someone presents a danger to our community right now, lock them up. But, 97 percent of incarcerated people get out at some point and re-join our community. This may not be a popular talking point, but they are members of our community. Incarceration is not a long-term solution. So, achieving long-term community safety, especially when talking about criminal defendants who have severe mental illness, takes a multi-faceted, multi-system approach. Breaking a cycle of criminal recidivism can only happen when you address the underlying cause or causes of criminality.
With mental illness, the need is helping to get them on the proper medication and keep them on that medication long-term. It’s also filling in some of these gaps that exist, such as housing stability, peer support, and getting them on Medicaid or Medicare to qualify to get this medication and be able to afford it.
Perryman: All of those things are very, very important. Yet we continue to have incidents at the school in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York, at the grocery store. We’re finding guns getting into the hands of perhaps mentally ill people. How do we address that?
Navarre: Well, the first thing I’d say is we have too many guns. We have 400 million guns in this country. We have more guns than we have citizens, so not to get too political, but guns are a common factor. I saw something today that in all of the mass shootings throughout the last few years with high fatality rates, an AR-15 was used. So why aren’t our legislatures talking about that? Why aren’t they talking about who has access to these guns and why there are so many of them?
I think it’s also important to talk about access to mental healthcare and creating a culture where we destigmatize the conversation around mental illness. We should not look at it as a weakness when somebody seeks treatment. Let’s look at it as a strength when someone identifies that they need help.
Perryman: What can you do as Judge Navarre to increase community safety and facilitate treatment or access to mental health?
Navarre: In Lucas County, we have made tremendous strides as a leader nationwide in criminal justice reform. Specifically, when it comes to better treating those who have mental illness.
Last month, Lucas County was recognized as an “innovator county” by the national Stepping Up Initiative. That means that they’ve recognized Lucas County as accurately identifying who has mental illness disorders in our jails, collecting and sharing that data to better connect these individuals to treatment and services, and using that data to inform our local policies and practices.
Perryman: Are these your initiatives or the county’s initiatives you’re supporting?
Navarre: We’ve been doing a few different things, specifically in Common Pleas Court. I spearheaded an effort to change how we treated those with mental illness on probation with our courts. And provide a better, more comprehensive resource to supervise them and give them the resources they need to achieve long-term recovery from their mental illness.
I did that because we saw those in the common pleas system who had serious mental illness failing on probation across the board. When we dug into this, we found that many of these people were not stable. They were not actively treating their mental illness with medication. They had housing instability, didn’t have a sound support system, and didn’t know where their next hot meal was coming from.
So, it was pretty dense of us to expect that they would follow through with that, treat their mental illness, and were going to get better. Instead, we were setting them up for failure.
Perryman: How did you address the problem?
Navarre: We brought in Unison Health, a community health center, as a partner. They’ve given us access to one of their FACT teams. We call this our Felony FACT team. It provides comprehensive care for people on probation for the Lucas County Common Pleas Court. FACT includes peer support, housing assistance, and ensures medication compliance. In addition, they have someone who will specifically work with clients to assist with Medicaid or Medicare. FACT also provides rides and transportation to treatment and peer support classes.
We’re seeing much more success when we set clients up with wraparound services that treat these individuals as a whole person.
Perryman: Were these precisely your initiatives?
Navarre: That specifically was my initiative, my works. As both a common pleas court judge and the behavioral health and criminal justice co-chair for the criminal justice coordinating committee, I did that. I also worked in conjunction with Unison and our probation department. So, it was my brainchild, but I had a lot of help in making it happen and successful.
Perryman: Mental health is not talked about enough. As we reach the end of mental health awareness month, is there any message you want to communicate to our general population?
Navarre: Yes. I can’t take credit for it, but it’s a quote from the movie ‘The Joker.’ The lead character struggles with serious mental illness.
At one point in the film, he writes in a notebook that ‘The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t!’
So, I try to keep that in mind because we often impose standards and expectations on this population that just don’t fit. We have to be mindful of that if we’re ever going to find real solutions for them.
When I’m working with someone as a judge, it is essential to understand that their brains might work differently from mine.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org)