Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

Mckenzie Cross

Staff

Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren is a judge in the criminal circuit division court in Broward County Florida and is setting forth a reaction across the United States to help and understand the mentally ill. Lerner-Wren graduated with her J.D degree from the Nova Southeastern law center. She started her career as a commercial real estate and general practice lawyer. She then moved on to serve as a PAIMI lawyer (Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness) in the 17th judicial court. With her experience as a PAIMI lawyer and her understanding of mental illness, it was to no surprise when Chief Judge Dale Ross made her the head of the newly formed Mental Health Court. Although she was only 37 and had been a judge for only one year, she took the role, and from that moment on, the view on mental health cases has changed. This choice would prove to be a good one as she went on to help pave the way for other courts to follow. Dale Ross stated “When you are blazing the path, when there is no blueprint, you have to make hundreds of decisions every day. As far as I can tell, she took something that never was and made it into something that everybody wants. And that’s amazing.”

The idea and construction of the court stemmed from the highly publicized case of Aaron Wynn. When Wynn was only eighteen years old, he was involved in a car accident that caused brain damage. After the accident, he portrayed violent behavior. Although his parents tried to receive help, they were never granted it by the government. Later Wynn had a violent outbreak and pushed an 85- year-old woman. Unfortunately, she fell, hit her head, and sadly died. He was then charged with manslaughter. However, he was deemed unfit to stand trial. It was the heartbreak of this case that led to a Judicial report in 1994. The report disclosed that 10,000 mentally ill citizens were jailed annually. Nonetheless, they were not receiving any mental health treatment.

Things changed however when Judge Lerner- Wren stepped up to the plate. Since 2000, she has redirected over twenty- thousand mental illness cases from going to jail and instead helped to find them a safe place where they can be treated and helped. “It’s the matter of humanizing the law, when you do that, the … forces in the courtroom shift” she stated. Her compassion for people within her court is astounding that what makes her such a great judge. She said that even if things did not work with the newly formed court, she needed families to know that there was someone fighting against the harsh injustice of courts when it came to the mentally ill. “We have an abiding belief in recovery,” she said. “People diagnosed with mental health conditions have the capacity to pursue their dreams and their professional lives. They deserve dignity and are entitled to the full breadth of their legal rights under the law. Every individual has worth and should have the opportunity to reach their human potential in this life within the community” these words gave hope to families and hope into a new court system.

Lerner-Wren also wrote a book to bring awareness to the court titled, “A Court of Refuge“. Within the book, she focuses on different cases that she presided on throughout her time as the Mental Health Court Judge and shows the growth of the court from the beginning to helping tens of thousands of people. She is also an international public speaker in hopes of reaching more people and growing this type of court division. She has even been awarded multiple times. Some of her more prestigious awards include the Justice Leadership Award in 2013, the Humanitarian of the Year in 2000, and that same year she received the Children’s Advocate Award.

Throughout all of her hard work, she has remained focused on bettering the lives of those in need. The Broward’s Court could not have picked a more focus, determined woman. Families put their trust into her everyday, and she never lets them down. “My time spent at the state hospital working on behalf of the residents there, that was a difficult tour of duty,” she said. “This is a healing tour of duty.”