Mental illness collides with criminal justice

There was a time when Ohioans experiencing mental health crises could get help that was less likely to intersect with the criminal justice system. In past decades, a state-run local hospital, for instance, was able to evaluate and offer both short- and long-term mental health treatment, if necessary.

That designated local mental hospital no longer exists, and today experts say the system is lacking. Now, with few other options, family members or bystanders often who have few options end up calling police for help. Worse, untreated behavior can lead to criminal acts.

Sadly, incarcerating those suffering from severe mental illness can lead to a repetitive cycle of similar behavior and imprisonment. It can include a revolving door of emergency hospitalization, homelessness, repeated police encounters, committing crimes just for a place to stay in jail, a whirlwind of judges and courtrooms, lapses in treatment — all with mental anguish for the individuals and their family members.

Police officers and mental health officials alike do not believe county jails are the appropriate place for people with mental illness to get treatment, but often no other option exists, with fewer treatment facilities available. That’s a big problem that needs more focus.

Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton recently said the state failed to create a plan for services when state hospitals were closed, instead using the funds on other things. She added that among the biggest obstacles is that people with mental illness can’t make rational decisions on their own, but still aren’t sick enough to be placed in a guardianship.

Alarming rates of about 15 percent of all men booked into jails each year suffer from serious mental illness, and about 30 percent of women, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And while in jail, 64 percent of inmates report mental health concerns, compared with about 20 percent of the general population, according to Ohio peace officer training manuals.

Police officers, already tasked with big challenges of keeping our community safe and secure, also often become the point persons for de-escalating situations that can often become chaos. That’s why good police training is so imperative, along with available mental health services in both jails and prisons. It’s an issue that is expensive and complicated.

We are pleased to see that local law enforcement and jail officials understand the far-reaching throes of this crisis and are working to find ways to get those struggling with mental illness the assistance they need, at least while they are in the legal system. Special court dockets are often set up for defendants with mental illness.

In Mahoning County, for example, Probate Court Judge Robert Rusu said some of the most difficult mental health-related cases appear before his Fresh Start Court.

Those who frequently cycle in and out of the system appear before Rusu with a treatment team, he said. “We try to persuade them or order them to comply with treatments and to see the benefits of treatment,” Rusu recently told our reporter Renee Fox.

The programs can connect people to medications, counseling, jobs and housing, and has seen some success, Rusu said. But the programs usually are implemented after criminal cases are finished.

Rusu said one of the major issues in the area is a lack of structured housing.

“Housing is woefully lacking. A lot of these folks need good decent housing with some sort of structure; most can’t live on their own and need some structure,” Rusu said.

Also, the Mahoning County jail offers a counseling program.

Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said a national provider of mental health services, Well Path, now is working closely with other agencies in the jail.

“We acknowledge the justice system is one of the major providers of mental health and addiction services, and we must partner with them,” Piccirilli said.

We applaud this work. We believe it is all a good start, but we stress there is still so much room for improvement. Understanding, knowledge and a willingness to work together to find better solutions are key first steps.



After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.

Hosea 6:2 NKJV


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *


Starting at $4.39/week.

Subscribe Today