Law & Order: SFU (Special Flint Unit)

It’s been nearly 2 months interning here at Genesee Health Systems (GHS) as a Data Analyst for the Patient Registry project/Health Happens Here campaign, and in my brief 2 months of GHS life—I think I have accidentally…quite possibly…inadvertently…stumbled upon the solution, the answer and THE golden ticket to fix the entire United States criminal justice system…and that solution… it’s in Flint.

A little background? Genesee Health System (formerly known as Genesee County Community Mental Health) is a health care agency that promotes and supports “recovery, prevention, health and wellness of the body, the mind and the community”. It does this by offering a host of services including but not limited to preventing or rehabilitating individuals who have experienced substance abuse, promoting physical and mental health, and encouraging overall well-being. What does this look like on the ground floor? It looks a lot like peer recovery coaches who support individuals overcoming addictions; like case managers who help support folks and their families to find jobs, homes and primary health care and it looks a lot like psychiatrists and psychologists providing counseling services to those who suffer from mental health issues.

Wait…there’s more! It even looks like the authorization of a separate judicial body (let’s call it…a court or more specifically, the 7th Judicial Court and 68th District Court to be exact) to help those who are mentally ill and have been convicted of civil or criminal charges, get help (treatment, medication, counseling, etc…) get exonerated, and get their lives back. Quite the magic bean stalk if I’ve ever heard of one.

Today, the other interns and myself were taken on a trip to the “Mental Health Court”, with the Honorable Judge Barkey presiding. She was a fiery judge who had an eye for lies but a heart for truth—a nice combination for someone who has the power to determine whether or not someone should be sent to prison. The defendants in the courtroom were a diverse group of people with varying ages, races, ability levels and criminal offenses.

They sat. We sat. They waited. We waited.“All rise….”

The way it works…

Defendants: those who have diagnosed mental health conditions (Axis I Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective disorder, or Bipolar Affect Disorder) who have been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies

Defense team: An attorney (appointed or selected) and Community Mental Health (now GHS) representative

At the point the defendant reaches the Mental Health Court, they have already been charged with their offense–but should they decide to participate in the MHC program (which includes weekly or biweekly court appearances, treatment, adherence of said treatment, and community service) for one year, their charges will be dropped from their record.

In true “Law and Order” fashion, crime and punishment is not a black and white show. There is context and content behind every story, behind every action and inaction and there are few that understand the subtle nuances of each. Judge Barkey and the Mental Health Court are able to help reduce unnecessary and excessive incarcerations in Genesee County by taking time to understand the context and content behind each case presented. How long does it take to do this? Well, about an entire year essentially, to determine if the actions of this individual should hover over them for the duration of their life, or if maybe–just maybe, we can all work together to understand how their mental health affects their context (life), content (subject matter at hand) and subsequently their behavior.

Judge Barkey listened to nearly 15 stories that day in court. A few were already participants of their program and were participating in their weekly check-in; a few were first timer(s) who were being given the opportunity to participate; and one…he was about to graduate. After a year of sobriety, treatment, community service, and hard work—he was now a free man.

As a person interested in mental health and disparities, you can see how this scene–played out on a live action stage right in front of me– raised my brow.   Did you almost miss it too? Let’s rewind the tape, and play it back slowly: One’s actions are inextricably linked to their health (both mental AND physical).  Are we talking about offenses committed by hardened criminals without an ounce of remorse or regret, or are we talking about people (real people) who have mental illnesses which impact their thinking and their actions? Are we talking about children who are hyper active, overly aggressive and volatile ready to snap at any moment, or are we talking about young people who have been exposed to ultra violence in their communities, in their homes and subsequently have become desensitized, or worse, that much more vulnerable than their peers? Are we talking about women who voluntarily use and abuse their bodies for financial gain, or are we talking young females exoticized and exploited by the media–who have been conditioned to think that it is their only option to escape the ills of their community and a superficial, distorted, and commercialized image of womanhood, femininity and the ‘success’ that can stem from [mis]using both.

We are talking about public health—we are talking about the health of the public.

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