Two probate court judges will lead a seminar on how to deal with mentally ill people who break the law.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Judge Timothy P. Maloney gets angry when he looks out his office window in the Mahoning County Courthouse and sees familiar people walking out from under the Market Street bridge across the street.
He remembers them from his days as a probate court magistrate, when he conducted civil commitment hearings at the former Woodside Hospital, a state-run facility for the mentally ill.
The state closed the hospital, and all others like it, several years ago, placing the burden on privately run facilities to provide care for mentally ill people who break the law. Many of those people are now back on the streets.
"My immediate concern with the closing of Woodside was what would happen to all those patients I used to see up there," said Judge Maloney, who now presides over the probate court. "I have concerns that the process is not working as well now as it did before Woodside was closed."
Back in court
The problem is that many mentally ill people end up being cited into the criminal court system for misdemeanor violations, needlessly clogging up the courts.
"A lot of mentally ill people aren't even aware they broke the law," said Robert Knight, Mahoning County Jail medical services director.
He said they're most often cited for misdemeanor crimes like criminal trespass. Often they don't show up in court because no one takes responsibility for telling them they must appear.
That's why Judge Maloney and his colleague, Judge Thomas A. Swift of Trumbull County Probate Court, plan to have a seminar Aug. 13, at the Holiday Inn MetroPlex in Liberty.
The judges are negotiating with the Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy to have the seminar broadcast to police and health-care officials across the state.
The judges will meet with police and representatives of other agencies who serve the mentally ill and mentally retarded in hopes of finding ways to keep some of those people out of jail.
"Maybe we can get them some treatment and follow-up care, and keep these people out of the criminal system," Judge Maloney said.
Some of them, the judge said, could be subject to a civil commitment into a mental health facility or treatment program, if they qualify, instead of being slapped with criminal charges.
Probate courts have authority under Ohio law to issue formal commitment orders for people who are believed to be mentally ill and require immediate hospitalization.
That would require effort by police officers to screen those people and refer them to the court or to one of the social service agencies who work with the mentally ill.
Ohio law also grants certain health-care and law enforcement personnel the ability to initiate emergency commitment procedures without court approval, the judges said.
They want to make sure authorities know they have that power and explain how to use it.
Goal of seminar
Judge Maloney said the seminar is not meant to undercut diversion programs for the mentally ill already being used in some courts. Instead, he and Judge Swift hope to improve the line of communication between the various agencies to avoid arrests and criminal prosecutions whenever possible.
In a written statement, both judges said the seminar is merely a starting point and that the key to effective reform will be consistent follow-up.