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Mental illness collides with criminal justice

There was a time when Ohioans experiencing mental health crises could get help that was less likely to intersect with the criminal justice system. In past decades, a state-run local hospital, for instance, was able to evaluate and offer both short and long-term mental health treatment, if necessary.

That designated local mental hospital no longer exists and today experts say the system is lacking. Now, with few other options, family members or bystanders often who have few options end up calling police for help. Worse, untreated behavior can lead to criminal acts.

Sadly, incarcerating those suffering from severe mental illness can lead to a repetitive cycle of similar behavior and imprisonment. It can include a revolving door of being for emergency hospitalization, homelessness, repeated police encounters, committing crimes just for a place to stay in jail, a whirlwind of judges and courtrooms, lapses in treatment — all with mental anguish for the individuals and their family members.

Police officers and mental health officials alike do not believe county jails are the appropriate place for people with mental illness to get treatment, but often no other option exists, with fewer treatment facilities available. That’s a big problem that needs more focus.

Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton recently said the state failed to create a plan for services when state hospitals were closed, instead using the funds on other things. She added that among the biggest obstacles is that people with mental illness can’t make rational decisions on their own, but still aren’t sick enough to be placed in a guardianship.

Alarming rates of about 15 percent of all men booked into jails each year suffer from serious mental illness, and about 30 percent of women, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And while in jail, 64 percent of inmates report mental health concerns, compared to about 20 percent of the general population, according to Ohio peace officer training manuals.

Police officers, already tasked with big challenges of keeping our community safe and secure, also often become the point persons for de-escalating situations that can often become chaos. That’s why good police training is so imperative, along with available mental health services in both jails and prisons. It’s an issue that is expensive and complicated.

We are pleased to see that local law enforcement and jail officials understand the far-reaching throes of this crisis and work to find ways to get those struggling with mental illness the assistance they need, at least while they are in the legal system. Special court dockets are often set up for defendants with mental illness.

This is all a start, but there is much room for improvement. Understanding, knowledge and a willingness to work together to find better solutions are key first steps.

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