The leaders of an Ohio task force working to reduce the “revolving door effect” many people with mental illness encounter with the criminal justice system agree on a lot of things. But probably their most fundamental common ground is a desire to get things accomplished.
Those co-chairs are Attorney General Mike DeWine and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, and their group is the Attorney General’s Task Force on Criminal Justice and Mental Illness. The task force began meeting in December after evolving from the Advisory Committee on Mental Illness and the Courts (ACMIC), which Justice Stratton formed in 2001.
Need for solutions apparent
The situation — all involved with the task force agree — calls for a determined effort. People with severe mental illness make up 18 percent of all Ohio prison inmates, according to a 2010 report from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The Ohio Department of Youth Services reports that 58 percent of the 564 youth in its care as of March 1 were receiving psychology or psychiatry services.
“I became interested in this problem when I was a county prosecutor and found that a large number of repeat offenders, particularly those who committed minor offenses, had mental health problems,” Attorney General DeWine said. “They went to jail with a mental health problem, and they came out with a mental health problem. They weren’t getting treatment.”
While in the U.S. Senate, Attorney General DeWine and then-Congressman Ted Strickland co-sponsored legislation that led to more mental health courts and expanded treatment for inmates and parolees. Meanwhile, under Justice Stratton’s leadership, ACMIC has helped make Ohio a national leader in mental health courts and other specialty dockets.
Partnership expands opportunities
Justice Stratton said she welcomed the Attorney General’s invitation to evolve the task force, adding, “It expands our emphasis, our reach, and our force. It really enhances our ability to do a lot more when we combine forces.”
The task force’s 10 subcommittees are making headway on longstanding problems. For instance, when an inmate receiving mental health care leaves prison, he receives only a 14-day supply of medication. A subcommittee is working to extend the medication supply and provide an additional prescription. Other groups are making inroads on housing, law enforcement training, and issues involving military veterans.
To assist, the Attorney General’s Office will provide $500,000 for mental health-related projects.
Partners supportive of efforts
Representatives of the mental health and law enforcement communities see much value in improving interactions between the criminal justice system and those with mental illness.
“The criminal justice system has become a quasi mental health system,” said Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio. “What Justice Stratton and Attorney General DeWine have done is say, ‘We can do better. We should stop and get help for these people before they get to the criminal justice system.’”
Obetz Police Chief Ken Hinkle, who will begin a one-year term as president of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police this fall, agrees.
“The task force has been very beneficial in getting all the stakeholders together,” Hinkle said. “When that happens, you get better communication and greater awareness.”
Added Wayne County Sheriff Tom Maurer, the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association representative to the task force, “I think it’s a big positive for the law enforcement community.”
Training for law enforcement essential
Experts agree on the value of law enforcement training that focuses on de-escalating situations involving people in crisis. Varying levels of training are available:
- Crisis Intervention Team (CIT): CIT training is a 40-hour course linking law enforcement and emergency mental health services. Participants learn about de-escalation, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, legal issues, and the experiences of those with mental illness and their loved ones. Training is provided at no cost to local agencies. For information, visit www.namiohio.org and click on the programs link. Both the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association and Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police advocate the training.
- Interacting with the Special Needs Population: This free one-day course offered by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) provides a refresher on dealing with people in crisis. Eight offerings are scheduled in 2012. For dates and locations, visit www.OhioAttorneyGeneral/OPOTA.
- Combat Veteran Issues: This OPOTA course covers issues confronting distressed combat veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and teaches de-escalation techniques. For details, visit www.OhioAttorneyGeneral/OPOTA.
- De-escalating Mental Health Crises: This online e-OPOTA course covers the complexities of interacting with individuals in mental health crises. To take the course, visit www.OHLEG.org.