Lillian Lombardo has watched her son struggle with mental health problems for two decades.
Joseph Aronica III has been diagnosed with schizoaffective and personality disorders. Those illnesses mean he can experience hallucinations and delusions, plus anti-social behaviors, which include not feeling guilt or remorse.
Aronica has been jailed 52 times. His mother has tried to get him into Mental Health Court.
"'No I don't want to go to Mental Health Court. I just want to do my time.' He gets to make the choice, which, at some point, he shouldn't have that choice anymore," said Lillian Lombardo, Joseph Aronica's mother.
Now, he's once again in the criminal justice system, charged with felony arson for setting a Buffalo home on fire in November.
"Do you think I want to see him in an institution? I don't. Do I want to see him in jail? No. But you know what, I don't want him on the streets either because I can't sleep at night," said Lombardo. "A judge should be able to mandate him somewhere to get help."
But her desperate plea may fall short. His public defender says because Aronica understands what's happening in court, he’ll likely be found to be competent — which means he will face prison time, rather than institutionalization.
It’s something mental health advocates say needs to change.
"A lot of judges who are making these decisions don't have any special training in mental health. That's a real problem that you've put the burden on the criminal justice system, but you haven't given them the education or the tools to take care of the issues," said Ann Venuto, Psychiatric Mental Health nurse practitioner, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Buffalo & Erie County president.
Ken Houseknecht, the Mental Health Association of Erie County executive director said, "There are three times as many people in jail with serious mental health issues than in proper mental health treatment facilities."
Advocates say there aren't enough resources to get people treatment early before they enter the criminal justice system.
"It would make sense for us to devote those resources earlier and more aggressively when the situations are less complicated, are less costly, are less entrenched is somebody's lives," said Houseknecht.
Plus, even if people are mandated into an institution, advocates say the system sets people up to fail.
"The big problem happens when they go to discharge them from an acute setting is that they're closing all the beds for long-term care. We rarely have a good intermediate solution," said Venuto.
Advocates say they have made trips to both the state and nation's capitals to lobby for legislative change. In the meantime, they're encouraging lawyers, judges, police and anyone who deals with people who have these brain diseases to get educated on the issues by taking a Mental Health First Aid course.