KC Checkup: Four questions for Judge Kathleen M. Lynch

Walk into the courtroom of Wyandotte County District Judge Kathleen M. Lynch and you may be surprised to find lawyers who aren’t asked to stand up and a judge who prefers street dress to a judge’s robes. Lynch’s docket includes lots of cases involving mental illness or substance abuse and offenders needing institutional treatment. She’s become a big advocate for more social services in the area and for courtrooms more sensitive to people who have experienced trauma. For this month’s KC Checkup, Lynch told Heartland Health Monitor that she rethought her approach after meeting a woman who was terrified by the court system.

1. What happened?

Lynch: Every time she walked in the courtroom and she saw that judge sitting on that big, high bench and his big chair and his shiny black robe, it would trigger her symptoms, basically. Her palms would start to sweat. She would start to perspire. She would start to get nervous. She would start to act out, and she’d get jumpy, and of course, pretty soon she was out of control in the courtroom and ended up in jail or the hospital.

So I started wondering: What would happen if I wouldn’t wear my robe in the docket? So I quit wearing my robe that next docket. I just quit wearing it in that particular docket, and I think it takes a barrier down between me and the individual sitting across the room from me. We can kind of have a conversation about what they need and what we can provide so that their recovery can continue, and it doesn’t feel like I’m forcing them into anything but perhaps we’re having a conversation about what’s best for them. I certainly make it clear at the end of the day that I’m the one that makes the orders, but I think it certainly takes a barrier down and it leads to better conversation and dialogue between the parties.

2. A judge is supposed to be the face of authority and what you’ve done might seem to change that. Do you find people in your court showing less respect for you or for the process?

You know, I haven’t really experienced that much. I wondered about that. I think maybe if I was dealing with a different age population. I have a colleague in Johnson County, I believe he does the drug court for the juvenile court, and he wears his robe, but that’s a different situation. That may be the person’s first time that they’re involved in the criminal justice system, so you need to set a different tone.

The civil commitment docket is a civil proceeding. It’s kind of a problem-solving court, even though it’s not typically designated that from the Supreme Court. Because if we solve a lot of the problems here, we’re not going to see them down the road in the criminal justice system, or if they commit crime because they’re trying to support their habit or sometimes the police officer runs across them and they’re loitering or disorderly conduct or battery on a law enforcement officer – those sorts of things. If we can keep them out of that system, they’re going to be doing better. So I want to see this as a place where they can get help.

3. In addition to changes you’ve made in your court and the opening of the Rainbow mental health facility, there’s also recently been a lot of police in Wyandotte County getting trained in crisis intervention. Have you seen that make a difference from where you sit? 

Absolutely. There’s been a lot of deaths from people that have been involved with law enforcement for various reasons, and every time I hear about one of those, I feel for the officer involved, I feel for the family involved, and I have to wonder if the officers that were involved in some of the incidents: Had they been trained in crisis intervention techniques? I’m talking about the cases where someone was … substance abuse or showing signs of mental illness, and they ended up being injured or killed because of the interaction. Police officers have a tough job and they’ve got to do what they need to do to protect themselves as well as the community, but I do have to wonder when I hear about those incidents, it’s always in the back of my mind. I wonder if those officers had crisis intervention training. I’ve seen the de-escalation techniques work in my courtroom. I’ve seen them work in the street. So I know they work.

4. What other kinds of changes would you like to see happen to address mental illness and substance abuse in Wyandotte County?

I’d love to see us have an involuntary recovery center. That’s been done in Texas and in Arizona, and I just think it would be an excellent resource for not only law enforcement but even for the families so that their family members aren’t taken to Miami County, which is where the Osawotamie (mental hospital) is, an hour and a half away. Socioeconomic groups in Wyandotte County being what they are, most of them can’t travel down there to see the person so it’s really hard for them to be a part of their recovery until they get back out of the hospital. And a lot of them don’t like the fact that they’re going to go to the state hospital. They haven’t had good experiences there. So I would love to see a local facility that’s an involuntary recovery center. And I don’t care who funds it or who runs it, as long as it works in the best interest of the patient.

[This story was originally published by KCUR.]

Photograph by Alex Smith/Heartland Health Monitor.