There was a woman in the bright orange blazer in tears who believed she worked for (Florida) Congressman Bill Posey. There was the no-show, last seen on the streets of Cocoa Beach, who will now likely have a bench warrant issued for her arrest.
There was the latecomer who didn’t understand why she couldn’t return to Cherie Down Park until it was explained to her a third time.
Leading it all was a woman with a kind face and kinder soul who didn’t mind others talking over her or getting emotional, knowing full well she might represent the first interaction with authority in their lives that wasn’t automatically negative.
Knowing full well that if she listens, she might play a part in changing someone’s life — something Judge Cathleen Clarke has been doing since starting Brevard County (Florida) Mental Health Court in 2003.
“It’s rewarding,” said Clarke, a native Floridian, who earned her law degree from University of Florida in 1979. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done as a county judge because you see lives being changed.
“I’ve had people tell me this is the first time anyone has ever listened to them. From my perspective there is not a whole lot to do but to listen and try to figure out how to fix it.”
She modeled the unique court after successful programs in Broward and Alachua counties and there is no other courtroom like it in Brevard. Everyone — from the public defenders to the prosecutor to the case manager, who serves as a de facto probation officer, to the courtroom deputies to the smiling and patient Clarke — are on the same side. And yes, there is some hugging.
The court is not adversarial in the least. Everyone is there for one reason: to see someone charged with a non-violent crime get the help they need.
The court is designed to allow non-violent offenders with mental illness enter into a one-year program where they are assigned a case manager, must make all doctor and court appointments, take medications and speak weekly with a case manager in order to have their charges dropped.
No sexual offenders or DUIs are admitted into the program. Certain battery offenses are admitted only if the victim consents. Many of the offenders have been charged with things like trespassing or disorderly conduct.
“The emphasis is not punitive it’s therapeutic,” Clarke said. “We’ve been able to get people who were sleeping under bridges stabilized and on medication and into jobs. We’ve seen a lot of successes.”
You might even catch a smile from the normally stoic public defender George McCarthy, who spends much of his time defending capital murder cases in the felony division.
“It’s a nice change,” he said. “It’s nice to be in court with a different attitude.”
Case manager Tanya Johnson says she likes to think of herself as an architect of sorts, imagining what beautiful structure can emerge from the trouble.
“I can see what they are. It’s just a lot of things have happened in their lives to cover them up. You just get them back functioning and believing in themselves,” she said. “They have adopted a view of themselves as negative and they will never be any good. All it takes is one person to change that point of view.”
A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts cites a 2009 study that says an estimated 2 million adults with serious mental illnesses are put in jail every year. A similar study by the Urban Institute says those with mental illness remain in jail longer than others and are frequent returnees.
[Clarke, who will soon be leaving the court, has received accolades for her work]
“Judge Clarke is a compassionate, hard-working judge who understands the futility in continuing to prosecute certain defendants for crimes they commit due to mental illness,” said Chief Judge John Harris.
Volunteer Judge Rhonda Babb, who will be replacing her, is admittedly leery of taking over for her friend.
“Yes, I am nervous, she’s a tough act to follow,” she said with a smile.
[But she indicated that the court's approach would not change.]
“People tend to disregard those with mental illness,” she said. “Here they are getting someone to listen to them, someone who is going to be interested in what they have to say.”
John A. Torres, a columnist for Florida Today, is a 2014-2015 John Jay/Langeloth Mental Health and Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a column that appeared last month in Florida today, the first in a series of columns on the relationship between the mentally ill and the criminal justice system. For the full version, please click here. John welcomes comments from readers.