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Courts with compassion

The criminal justice system has long grappled with the perplexing problem of what to do with defendants and inmates who suffer from mental illness.

Throughout the country, jails and prisons have become crowded with people with mental illness, many of them inflating the rate of recidivism. A national study by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 16.7 percent of the nation’s inmates have mental health issues.

“We know that individuals who are actively struggling with mental illness symptoms tend to be in jail longer and have poorer outcomes,” said Tracy Plouck, a 1997 graduate of The Ohio State University and current director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

“This becomes a concern not only about them as humans, but it’s also a public-sector expenditure concern because we’re paying dollar after dollar after dollar and nothing is improving … their trajectories.”

What’s the answer?

For Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a 1979 graduate of The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, the answer is different now than when she served as a trial judge in Franklin County, Ohio, 30 years ago.

“I had so many cases on my docket involving the mentally ill,” Stratton said. “They didn’t belong in the system, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I foolishly thought at the time that if I put them in jail, they would get mental health services because they weren’t getting them in the community. But I found out there was just no collaboration between the mental health system and the drug and alcohol system and the courts.”

Today, Stratton is project director for the Stepping Up Initiative of Ohio, the state’s partnership with a national program aiming to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jail.

Ohio is gaining national recognition for changing how its criminal justice system handles people with mental illness. Experts credit Stratton for promoting the state’s new approach.

“She’s grabbed ahold of Stepping Up and really positioned Ohio as the leader in the country in what I think is a very important initiative,” said Tom Stickrath, a 1979 Ohio State graduate who heads the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Stratton has visited more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties to extoll and explain Stepping Up, and 44 have passed a resolution to implement the initiative since it was launched in May 2015.

“The program started when the sheriffs went to the county commissioners,” Stratton said. “The sheriffs said, ‘We’ve got a problem. Our jails have become a de facto hospital. We don’t have the resources, the training, the background. We need help.’”

Stepping Up was established to develop and promote data-driven strategies across systems to better deal with criminal defendants and inmates suffering from mental illness.

“We are learning a lot about what resources we have and what gaps we have in the system,” said Stratton, co-chair of the Ohio Attorney General’s Task Force on Criminal Justice and Mental Illness.

Leading the charge

Stratton’s first opportunity to help the system came when she was appointed to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1996 by Gov. George Voinovich. Five years later, she founded the Advisory Committee on Mental Illness and the Courts, and then she pushed for the establishment of mental health courts — special dockets within a court — in hopes of landing mentally ill defendants into treatment instead of incarceration.  

Today, Ohio leads the nation with 43 mental health courts, as well as 23 new veterans treatment courts that Stratton pushed for in Ohio and nationally.

Stratton helped to popularize Crisis Intervention Teams, made up of law enforcement officers trained to recognize and deescalate situations in the field involving mental illness. Back then, Ohio had only 100 officers trained for Crisis Intervention Teams; the state leads the country with more than 14,000 today. She also co-founded the Judges’ Leadership Initiative, a national association that supports cooperative mental health programs in the criminal justice system.

Stratton retired from Ohio’s Supreme Court to focus on helping Ohio try a different approach — treatment, not jail — with the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.

“We’re trying to get to the root of the problem,” Stratton said. “We’re trying to get at solutions instead of just putting persons with mental illness in jail, letting them out and seeing them get arrested over and over and over.”