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Wayne County’s chief probate judge is frustrated with Michigan’s treatment of the mentally ill

Jack Lessenberry

You’d have a hard time finding anyone with deeper Detroit roots than Milton Mack, Wayne County’s Chief Probate Judge. Two of his ancestors were in the canoes with Cadillac when he landed and founded the city on July 24, 1701.

From the window in his twelfth-floor office in downtown Detroit, Judge Mack can actually see the place where those voyageurs scrambled up the bank of what is today a solidly frozen river.

There were probably those back then who thought Cadillac was crazy.

But Milton Mack knows Michigan’s legal system of dealing with mental illness has problems, more so than some of the patients he sees, and with less excuse. Probate court is where relatives and guardians go when someone is mentally incapacitated.

But because of Michigan’s backward laws, he told me “it is easier for me to issue an amputation” than it is to order outpatient treatment for the mentally ill.

Judge Mack has been on the bench for nearly a quarter of a century now. Soon after he arrived, John Engler became governor and began closing Michigan’s mental hospitals.

That was part of a national wave of deinstitutionalization, and might have made some sense, if sufficient facilities had been established for outpatient care. They weren’t.

As a result, Mack told me “legally, we still have an inpatient system in an outpatient world.”

Hundreds, probably thousands of treatable mentally ill people shuffle back and forth from the streets to jail or prison. Unless they are found to be a clear danger to themselves or others, judges are powerless to order treatment.

This has created a system that is dangerous, expensive, and leaves many people with unnecessarily ruined lives.

The problem, the judge said, “is that policy makers don’t understand that mental illness is treatable.” There’s also still somewhat of a taboo against talking about it, and a reluctance to infringe on people’s autonomy. 

Unfortunately, while mental illness is often as real and treatable as a broken leg, many patients don’t know they are ill. The law says they cannot be forced into treatment unless experts determine they are clearly a danger to themselves or others.

And then, ordering hospitalization is generally the only alternative. Today, Michigan has fewer psychiatric care beds than almost any other state.

Ten years ago, the Legislature passed what is called Kevin’s Law, after a brilliant graduate student who was the victim of a random murder by a paranoid schizophrenic who was off his medication.

Kevin’s Law allows a guardian to file a petition and ask for a judge to order outpatient care. But the law has been a failure. Few petitions are ever filed, and our jails are clogged with the mentally ill, some of whom deliberately get locked up in order to get treatment.

Milton Mack believes things would drastically improve if the mental health code were to be changed to allow judges to order outpatient treatment on their own. But various legislatures and governors have seemed afraid of doing so.

And so, lives that could be turned around are ruined, and we waste vast sums on jailing them instead. Fortunately, Milton Mack has not given up trying to make the lawmakers listen.

More of us need to help him do that too.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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