Aim is to keep mentally ill from being jailed



U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland sponsored both bills.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Twice-imprisoned for assault and theft, Rodney Jews found himself with a new option to consider after being arrested for the fourth time: sober up, take his anti-depression medication, talk to a therapist and take an anger-management class.
"At first, I was hesitant and rebellious," said Jews, 48 and the father of five. "But I was tired of being in and out of the pen, so I decided to give the program a try."
Jews, who grew up in an Akron orphanage after seeing his father shoot his mother to death, has been sober for a year and a half and talks regularly with his therapist and anger-management group. He's one of 58 graduates from Ohio's first mental health court, which started in 2001 in Akron.
There are now about 98 such courts nationwide -- including 11 in Ohio -- to divert the mentally ill to treatment instead of sending them to jail.
Would require studies
Early studies of two diversion programs in Ohio show that they have saved taxpayer money and kept the mentally ill out of jail. Pending legislation in Congress would require the federal government to study the effectiveness of such courts at rehabilitating offenders.
Legislation also would authorize $10 million over five years to continue a grant program that has given $5.5 million to 36 jurisdictions, including three in Ohio, to help start mental health courts or similar programs.
Another bill, which passed the Senate last year, would spend $100 million in grants over five years to help states and communities treat people with mental illnesses who are already in prison or about to be released.
The vote was unanimous in 2000 to create the grant program. Both current bills have widespread support, but passage this year depends on the time available before lawmakers adjourn for the November election.
"The criminal justice system is finding itself clogged by people who commit infractions who are mentally ill," said U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, an Ohio Democrat and former prison psychologist who sponsored both bills in the House. "They go in and out like a revolving door and it's costly, inefficient and not good for the patients."
Showed effectiveness
The Akron mental health court commissioned a study by Kent State University of its program that showed the services helped keep participants out of jail, said Jennifer Teller, project director for the study.
Teller's project tracked 40 program participants and found that their average number of incarcerations dropped from about 20 per person in 2000 to 0.54 per person in 2003.
"It's quite encouraging," she said. "You can't yet say that any type of diversion works or what works best, but it's more of how does it work and under what conditions and for whom."
A study by Butler County's drug court, which also works to stop repeated jailing of the mentally ill, shows that prison costs for 30 program participants totaled about $683,900 compared to $543,700 to run the program.
The program is tailored to drug felons who may or may not have mental illnesses. Since it started in 1999, some 155 people have started treatment, and about 55 percent have been successful while the others were sent to jail, said Chris Connolly, the executive director.
Mental illnesses are biologically-based brain disorders not related to a person's character or intelligence that afflict 5 to 10 million Americans. About 16 percent of adults detained in the criminal justice system suffer these illnesses, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"We're talking about a huge problem," said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.
But some critics say waiting until a person gets arrested until providing treatment can be too little, too late.
"Individuals ... shouldn't necessarily need to come before a court to have intervention and services," said Laurel Stine, director of federal relations for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
Although each mental health court or diversion program is operated differently, participants typically are required to meet weekly with a judge or case manager, undergo counseling, participate in drug or alcohol treatment programs as needed and secure safe housing and employment. Some courts use incentives such as ball game tickets or a free manicure to get participants to cooperate.
Family was incentive
After a lifetime of alcohol abuse, two prison terms and no more than an 11th-grade education, Jews was skeptical that the mental health court program would do any good. But he wanted to stay out of prison so he could spend more time with his three daughters who live in the Akron area.
"I wanted to drink but I knew that if I drank, I would violate my probation and all and go back to jail," Jews said. "In order to stay with my family, I had to stay with the program."

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