Canton Repository

July 31, 2003

Help sought for mentally ill in crime cycle

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — It was just after learning she would be appointed to the state’s highest court that Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton began to see the importance of treating the mentally ill. She found out that her 12-year-old son was threatening suicide.

“One of the things I learned in the process is that (with) children of depression, when you can reach them young, certain types of depression are curable,” she said Wednesday.

Stratton recalled the incident from eight years ago while testifying in favor of legislation to provide such treatment.

Her son, Luke, spent two weeks in a hospital and is now fine, she said. But she added that mentally ill offenders have appeared before her in court who never had the help they needed. They ended up in the justice system again and again.

She and Ohio Corrections Chief Reginald Wilkinson and several others from across the nation endorsed the legislation, which was introduced by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. The bill would authorize $200 million in federal funding over two years to support partnerships between law enforcement and the mental health community to make treatment available to mentally ill offenders.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, has offered similar legislation in the House.

DeWine, who chaired a Judiciary Committee hearing on his bill Wednesday, said the legislation “would promote public safety by helping decrease the number of repeat offenders and also would promote public health by ensuring that those with a serious mental illness are treated as soon as possible and as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

About 16 percent of inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, he said.

In addition to helping the mentally ill, providing treatment would reduce the costs to the criminal justice system, he said.

Stratton established a statewide task force to address the problem of mentally ill offenders. Partly as a result, more than 20 counties in Ohio have created special courts or other programs that seek to get the mentally ill into treatment, she said.

DeWine’s legislation “can further that type of collaboration. It can provide that key seed money,” she said.

Jails and prisons are unequipped to provide the treatment needed, said Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

“Not surprisingly, inmates with untreated mental illness are at a high risk of committing suicide or being victimized by predatory inmates,” he said. “Unless we provide these offenders with the services and treatment they need while they are incarcerated, we are virtually guaranteeing that they will commit new crimes when they return to the community.”

Grants from the legislation could be used to create treatment programs, including those to which mentally ill offenders could be assigned as an alternative to incarceration. The money also could be spent to train law enforcement in the most effective ways to handle the mentally ill.

DeWine questioned why more collaboration has not already occurred.

Vermont State Sen. John Campbell blamed turf wars between local entities competing for limited dollars.

“I think it has been a cultural issue more than anything,” added Stratton. Courts, mental health providers and others operate in isolation from each other, she said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., urged DeWine to add a provision to the legislation to make it easier for poor offenders to re-qualify for government paid health care when they are released. That would allow them to purchase the medication they desperately need, he said, crediting his predecessor, former Sen. Paul Simon, for the idea.

Inmates lose their eligibility for Medicaid when they are imprisoned and must reapply for it after release.

Stratton said the Ohio task force is working to speed the transition back to Medicaid by “hooking up the defendant with the medical process” before being discharged.

Mental health directors in two area counties see merit in the proposal.

Leslie Abel, executive director of the Stark County Community Mental Health Board, believes the legislation could support the county’s court-affiliated treatment program for offenders as well as a pending effort to provide training to law enforcement.

Unlike many counties, Stark has not had a major problem with the mentally ill continually being cycled through the justice system, he said.

“The biggest challenge is maintaining some continuity of service while the person is in jail or prison,” he said. “That’s an issue.”

Abel also expressed the need to better assess the mental health of offenders, but added, “You can only do what you have the resources to do.”

“The problem is primarily one of funding,” said Martha Briem, executive director of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Tuscarawas and Carroll Counties.

The counties have a program that provides a team including a nurse, psychiatrist, social worker and others who work with groups of people “who have had difficulties with law enforcement and tries to give them the kind of ongoing treatment and intervention that will help them keep themselves out of trouble,” she said.

Although Tuscarawas and Carroll counties have not established a mental health court, Briem said these courts have proven to be effective in directing people to treatment and “anything that can add to that can help.”