Mental health courts: A good idea then and even better now

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Eve- lyn Lundberg Stratton and Attorney General Mike DeWine are once again collaborating in the important work of breaking a pattern that too often ends with mentally ill people facing criminal charges and ending up in jail or prison.

Nearly a decade ago, Justice Stratton was working her way around the state touting federal legislation that had been authored by then-U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-6th, that encouraged development of mental health courts. At the time, we urged Mahoning County to pursue establishment of one, and it did so.

Today, Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen A. Sweeney presides over the court, which is one of 37 in the state. The court works with mental health agencies in the county to provide a better, cheaper and more just alternative than jail for nonviolent offenders who are battling mental health issues.

The movement toward recognizing the need for intervention and an alternative to incarceration followed the deinstitutionalization movement and the closing of state mental health facilities decades ago. The motives of that movement may have been pure and even necessary in an age when too many people were too easily confined to institutions. But the effect was also to put many people on the streets who still had mental health issues and who were, for a variety of reasons, not receiving treatment or medication.

And in that environment, those people ended up arrested, in court and, often, in prison. Back in 2000, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said it was housing 6,393 mentally ill inmates, 3,051 of whom were classified as severely mentally disabled. Five years later, mentally ill inmates were still an enormous burden on the Department of Corrections, with $64 million spent in 2006 on mental health care for inmates — more than was spent on food for all inmates.

The bigger picture

Beyond the cost in dollars, there is the moral obligation of a civilized society to treat its mentally ill in ways that avoid the necessity of imprisoning them. That has been one of the efforts and successes of mental health courts.

That effort is being expanded, through a new collaboration between Justice Stratton and DeWine, who is now Ohio’s attorney general.

The Advisory Committee on Mental Illness and the Courts (ACMIC), which oversaw development of mental health courts and specialized training for more than 4,500 law enforcement officers, will evolve into the Attorney General’s Task Force on Criminal Justice and Mental Illness. This will allow expansion beyond the court system, and facilitate broader efforts to keep the mentally ill from becoming criminal defendants.

It will also provide a greater funding stream for those efforts. DeWine announced a grant of $60,000 from his office to the Ohio Chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. The money came from fines received by the attorney general’s office in its role overseeing legalized gambling.

“The question becomes would we rather spend these dollars to keep mentally ill citizens homeless, revolving in and out of our criminal justice system, or would we rather spend these dollars to help them to become stable productive citizens?” That was Justice Stratton speaking during a meeting with The Vindicator editorial board in 2002. We said then, and continue to believe today, that the answer has to be care rather than criminalization.

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