WAITING FOR A CRISIS: Why criminal justice officials say the system has to change

Mental Health

Our 4-week series on mental health continues with a look at how officials involved with the criminal justice system are working to help those suffering from a mental illness.

LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) — 40-year old Felix Reyna has a history of mental illness, and while he’s found some support, he went through a lot to get it.

“I became homeless in the mid-2010’s,” Reyna said.

Reyna is a Mason High School graduate and he’s been living with several mental illnesses for pretty much his whole life.

“I have battled with depression, and paranoia, and also anxiety and those things are really I guess things that have held me back from doing a lot of things.”

Reyna also had a drinking problem and when he quit, his life actually got even tougher.

“When I started to ostracize myself because I quit drinking and really kind of just took myself out of the nightclub and bar scene and everything else, I really felt alone and even though I wasn’t necessarily alone, what was going on in my head was making things pretty bad,” Reyna said.

When things start to go wrong for someone like Reyna, many times police officers are the first ones on the scene.

Some in this field even call them “the front-line mental health workers.”

“If we arrest someone who has a mental health disorder, that’s a failure,” Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton said. “It’s really a societal failure but it may be a failure for us as well.”

Clayton has been highly praised for his work on the mental health front and for educating his officers.

“You hear all of this about “de escalation,” Clayton said. “Well, what does that mean? Let’s teach them how to de escalate, create space, not amp up a situation but to calm it down.”

Clayton’s making sure that everyone involved in the criminal justice process is on the same page as well. So the sheriff focuses on communication.

“We’ve had meetings where we’ve had the health care providers, mental health, substance abuse disorder, folks from housing, all in the same room talking about what they see from their perspective,” Clayton said. “Although we may have some disagreements on the path, let’s just agree on the outcome.”

Part of the reason communication is key is that there’s no absolute right answer for how to handle these situations and sometimes that leads to frustrating stories like this.

“I mean we had this recently in Detroit where an individual is taken by the police to the emergency room and within two days this person is back on the street, has a confrontation with the police, throws a knife at an officer and is shot and killed. Now that is just a tragic episode all the way around,” Former State Court Administrator Milton Mack said.

Mack was a long time judge in Wayne County and is now on a national task force dealing with mental health.

Mack said courts need to look at all available options, not just jail, or hospital.

“A-O-T, also known as assisted outpatient treatment, is basically court-ordered treatment on an outpatient basis, supervised by a psychiatrist.

“And it calls for medication, it calls for group therapy, individual therapy, possibly substance abuse, there’s a variety of treatment modalities that are available,” Mack said.

During his time on the bench, Mack developed a passion for helping people with mental health issues.

“It just seems a terrible injustice to lock people up because they have a mental illness. And that just, bothers me,” Mack said.

Mental health doesn’t discriminate. No family is immune, not even for a supreme court justice.

Hon. Bridget Mary McCormack said she was shocked to learn her son was battling depression.

“He ended up walking himself into a psychiatric hospital which saved his life and he was an incredibly successful high school kid,” McCormack said. “He was a captain of a couple of sports teams, he did well in school, he got into the University of Michigan, he’s cute, he had a girlfriend you know, I don’t know what else like, it never occurred to me that he was struggling with depression and anxiety and he was seriously struggling.”

One solution is problem-solving courts — or mental health courts. They give supervision and treatment to people with a mental illness — who have pleaded guilty to a non-violent felony offense.

Ingham county has a mental health court and Felix Reyna is a graduate. Reyna said it got him back on track.  

“Mental health court, I feel that they just go about things a lot, I wouldn’t say easier, but gentler,” Reyna said. “You have to follow the rules and you know do exactly, as they say, they don’t make it difficult, they just make it thorough.”

But Mack said this issue goes beyond problem solving courts.

Data shows 40 percent of Americans suffering from a serious mental illness will spend time in jail or prison at some point in their life. 

“We have all these people in Michigan,” Mack said. “For example, we have about 160,000 people who will go to jail this year, and if only 20 percent have a serious mental illness. That’s 32,000 people. Our mental health courts can handle about 1,500 people a year.”

Thankfully though, Reyna was one of the 1,500. The court steered him in the right direction.  He knows his battle isn’t over, but he’s been given the tools to succeed.”

“It’s helped me grow a lot,” Reyna said. “Even though I’m 40 and I was 37 when I entered mental health court and I was technically a man, I feel like it really helped me grow and get closer to what I’d like to be someday. We’ll see how it goes.”

Make sure to check out the rest of our mental health series on our mental health page:

To find out more information about the Ingham County Mental Health Court, check out the link below:

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