Mental Health court helps break the cycle of ill patients in and out of jail

Published: February 4, 2019 8:18 AM EST
Updated: February 7, 2019 2:47 PM EST

The criminal justice system is trying to stem the tide of mentally ill people cycling in and out of jail.

Tom Ruggiero was one of those cases, as he used crime to help cope with the pain of losing his wife among other family members.

“I was just like I can’t do this, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t fathom another birthday, holiday, anniversary, anything without my wife,” said Ruggiero.

MORE: Mental health resources in Southwest Florida

His wife died in a car accident after celebrating remission from cancer. She was one of many family member’s he has lost.

A day after Christmas, he took the last of his wife’s cancer medication and went to sleep hoping not to wake up.

“I was a lost soul. I didn’t know how to do anything, I didn’t know how to share, didn’t know how to change. I wanted it but I just didn’t know how to do it,” said Ruggiero.

He ended up at the David Lawrence Center under Florida’s Baker Act. After being held for a psychiatric evaluation, he was put in jail for violating probation.

“The first month I didn’t know what was going on. Nobody could give me any information, my lawyers, nobody. But they were hatching a plan, the prosecutor the judge and my lawyer to get me into mental health court.”

Judge Janeice Martin runs Collier County’s Mental Health court, which moves defendants with mental health struggles from jail into treatment.

“It is highly individualized. It is essentially compelled treatment but they opt into it, which is how we are able to then compel the treatment. They agree to be bound to do whatever the doctor directs them to do and we simply enforce the compliance with their treatment plan,” said Judge Martin.

Despite some inevitable setbacks, the program has a 69% success rate, with only 21% rearrested within 3 years. Even for those who did not finish the program, recidivism is 40%.

Ruggiero graduated from mental health court in less than a year.

Trauma Therapy gets to the root of deep-seated pain and finally heals it, and because of it, today Ruggiero has a job and a devoted family.