Chief Judge Leads Wayne County Jail Mental Health Initiative

Freddie G. Burton, Jr., chief judge of the Wayne County Probate Court, is on a mission. With the help of the Flinn Foundation, the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network and more than 80 stakeholders in Wayne County, Burton is aiming to end the cycle of incarcerating non-violent offenders with mental health disorders through the Wayne County Jail Mental Health Initiative. 

Burton — who is a Detroit native, Michigan State University and Wayne State University graduate with 35 years of experience as a judge — is spearheading the initiative, which has been underway since 2018. And it’s a crucial one. 

According to Urban Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides data and evidence to help with decision-making and improve the well-being of families and communities, roughly 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates have a mental health problem. 

Instead of getting the help they need, many people end up in the criminal justice system and can’t seem to get out. 

Many times, it’s due to a breakdown in communication between law enforcement and hospitals. For example, Burton may preside over a case and order hospitalization for 60 days in addition to 120 days as an outpatient. However, when that person is stabilized, they could be let out of the hospital in 2-3 weeks, “but the outpatient basis is where we find an incredible breakthrough,” he notes. In some cases, that person might stop taking their medication and ultimately end up back at square one — in the court room yet again.

“It’s a revolving door,” Burton says.

That’s why collaboration among hospitals, jails and police to make sure more people are getting into assisted outpatient treatment is key. Burton says, through the initiative, they are making some true headway. 

“Through the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice, we have an opportunity to develop information and then share that information,” he says. This allows those involved with the initiative to get a better look at what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong, he adds. 

Until the end of 2022, Burton’s docket will be filled solely with mental health cases for the county. 

“As part of the pilot program, every time they enter a line treatment order, a case management folder must be prepared and filed to the court within 30 days or prior to the discharge of this person from the hospital,” Burton says. “They will communicate with the CMH, which is the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network. They connect with service providers to make sure that person has been connected with the services they need. If they don’t follow this, they are subject to be taken back to the hospital,” Burton notes. 

There is a civil side of this and a criminal side to this initiative, he adds.  

“On the criminal side, we have seen tremendous reductions on the number of people that have been placed in jails,” he says. 

Another piece of this puzzle is the Behavioral Health Unit, which is the first of its kind in the state. The Behavioral Health Unit is located in the Wayne County Probate Court.

“When there is a problem, the Behavioral Health Unit is there. When there is training required, we provide training … and it’s through the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network. They have a legal and contractual responsibility to develop programs for providers, hire them, so they can take care of the individuals who are being released into the community,” he says. 

The initiative has a long way to go, but those involved are committed — and the collaborations and partnerships are working.  

“To me, it’s amazing how much we’ve been able to get people committed in the last 4 to 5 years,” Burton says. “It’s just a disgrace that we have so many people who just need some help, and we’ve not been able to do that, but I think we’re really moving in the right direction.”