Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Stratton: Some don't get justice

Says mentally ill and disabled need more aid, less jail

By Janice Morse, jmorse@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WEST CHESTER TWP. — When they're victims, their cases are rarely prosecuted.

        When they're offenders, their punishment is often the maximum allowed by law.

        People with mental retardation or mental illness “don't know how to stand up for their rights” — and therefore usually don't get fair treatment on either end of the criminal justice system, according to Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.

        Justice Stratton outlined her efforts to change the system and challenged others to take action in a keynote address Monday at the “Health, Safety and Freedom” symposium sponsored by the Butler County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (MRDD). The symposium at the Marriott Hotel North drew about 70 professionals in law enforcement, courts, and MRDD and mental illness programs.

        Justice Stratton said she formed the Ohio Task Force on Mental Health Court Initiatives eight months ago and has canvassed the state to encourage similar county-level groups to form. Butler County, she says, has emerged as a leader.

        Butler County Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Sage and Fairfield Municipal Judge Joyce Campbell are “trailblazers” for trying to divert mentally ill and mentally disabled people into programs rather than jails or prison, she said.

        Justice Stratton said people with mental disabilities tend to be more victimized in prison; get stricter punishment because they do not understand the rules; and often serve their full sentences because judges, probation and parole officials worry about what might happen if they are released early. They serve up to 30 percent longer sentences, she said.

        “If you can get to their needs, you can keep them out of the cycle of the system,” she said — and the results will save taxpayers' money and improve the quality of life for the affected individuals.

        Closing state mental institutions has caused prisons to swell with inmates who are mentally ill or mentally disabled — and those who aren't in prison may be homeless. She said the system “has no net for them.”

        Agencies need to better coordinate services because the individuals' problems are often complex, she said.


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- Stratton: Some don't get justice
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