Friday, March 17, 2000

Courts look at mental illness

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While advocates for the mentally ill continue to push for special mental health courts here and across the nation, Hamilton County has created a mental health docket that attempts to give mentally ill defendants appropriate treatment.

        Since the docket's creation Jan. 1, 55 people and 86 cases have been placed on it in Municipal Court.

        In Hamilton County, the cases of mentally ill defendants are continued in the arraignment process so the court can reach a caseworker, physician, family member or mental health services provider. If possible, the offender is diverted to community-based mental health services or medication.

        “The whole concept is to slow down the process and give the individual the attention he or she needs rather than keeping them in jail or sending them to the Lewis Center for restoration of competence,” said Michael Walton, administrator of Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

        Special courts or dockets that recognize defendants' mental illness histories are considered the best way to reduce the number of people behind bars who suffer from a mental illness. A 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that about 16 percent of the nation's prison population — 283,800 inmates — have severe mental illness.

        The report also shows emotionally disturbed inmates tend to follow a cycle of homelessness to incarceration without receiving adequate treatment.

        That's why groups such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) are promoting mental health courts. It has chapters in Hamilton and Butler counties.

        “We're not promoting that (mentally ill defendants) aren't responsible for what they've done,” said Dick Buck, a member of Hamilton County NAMI. “But we believe we're all better off if people get the right kind of treatment.”

        A mental health diversion court identifies defendants with a history of mental illness or people whose behavior suggests it. In conjunction with mental health services, the defendant can be sentenced to treatment and medication that is supervised by the court.

        NAMI says mental health courts that divert mentally ill defendants to alternative programs or treatment help reduce the number of repeat offenders with mental illness.

        Advocates say the courts generally cost about $400,000 to start.

        Legislation has been introduced in Congress by Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, to make competitive grant money available to counties nationwide that want to try the new approach to deal with nonviolent, mentally ill defendants. A districtwide briefing will be led today in Chillicothe, Ohio, by Mr. Strickland.

        In Butler County, advocates are working for a mental health court but are aware of the concerns.

        “The criminal justice side is concerned about the costs of specialty courts,” said John Staup, executive director of the Butler County Mental Health Board.

        But, he added, the criminal justice system is broken when it comes to dealing with mentally ill defendants.

        Two mental health diversion courts operate in the United States. Broward County, Fla., established a mental health court in 1997. In its first year, the court diverted more than 300 mentally ill misdemeanor offenders from jail into treatment.

        The nation's second mental health court was created in February 1999 in King County, Wash.

        While those courts deal with only misdemeanor defendants, they could be expanded to felony offenders. That would include individuals like Steven Young, 28, of Hamilton, who was arrested in February 1999 after failing to failing to comply with an order to pull over while driving on Interstate 74 near New Haven Road. He fled and was charged with felonious assault on police officers and failure to comply with an order to stop.

        His mother, Nancy Young, said her son, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is a manic depressive, was off his medication and heard voices telling him to keep going. He was shot in the hand and bitten by police dogs when he tried to flee.

        Charges against Mr. Young were dismissed in August. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, yet he spent four months in the Hamilton County Justice Center, where, his mother said, he received inferior medication.

        Mr. Young is now incarcerated at the Pauline Warfield Lewis Center. “He had no history of violent behavior, had never been in trouble with the law,” Mrs. Young said while she petted her son's black Labrador, Kody, on the front porch of her Hamilton house.

        “He's been cut off from everything — his family, his dog, his job as a landscaper. He should be home with me. He's fine when he's on his medication.”

        • What: Meeting on mental health court legislation.

        • Where: Christopher Conference Center, Chillicothe, Ohio.

        • When: 10 a.m.-noon today. • Miscellaneous: U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, will be the host of the meeting. He has sponsored mental health court legislation, The Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project, which would provide competitive grants for counties that want to try a new approach to deal with nonviolent mentally ill misdemeanor offenders.

        Panelists include police, prosecutors, judges and a member of the Warren County National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Gina Haffner.

        • Information: (202) 226-8525.


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