At a two-day policy forum in Atlanta this week, leaders from seven states began implementing a national initiative on mental illness and the courts modeled on Ohio's program started by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.
"Extensive collaboration is needed to improve the outcomes of mentally ill persons in our justice system," Justice Stratton said. "We took significant strides this week at the policy forum toward expanding partnerships among branches of government and governmental agencies. I'm confident that this broadened initiative will result in a stronger system with fewer individuals with mental illness falling through the cracks."
The forum brought together for the first time the seven states - California, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Vermont - that have been awarded grant dollars to create a statewide task force led by their Chief Justices to develop and implement policy solutions to issues involving individuals with mental illness in the criminal justice system. The task forces are modeled after Ohio's Advisory Committee on Mental Illness and the Courts. Taking it nationwide began with the Judges' Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative, a national organization of judges under the Council of State Governments Justice Center, co-chaired by Justice Stratton and Judge Steven Leifman of the Miami-Dade County Court in Florida.
Some of the discussion at the conference centered on the recent massacre at Virginia Tech University and the fact that the perpetrator was reportedly a mentally ill student. Justice Stratton said that initiatives such as hers might help set policy that could better enable law enforcement officials and courts to deal with potentially dangerous individuals with mental illness, but she cautioned against overly optimistic and simplistic solutions.
"News reports have discussed the Virginia Tech shooter's untreated mental illness, access to firearms, and prior contacts with the court system, and many facts remain unknown," Justice Stratton said. "Each of these issues is unique to the laws and policies of each state; a one-size-fits-all solution for every state, designed in response to a tragedy that occurred in Virginia, is impractical and unwise."
Among the many mental health-related topics discussed at the two-day policy forum was Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, which began in Ohio in 2000 with the Akron Police Department. The program was designed to help the criminal justice system more effectively deal with mentally ill offenders. CIT is a collaborative effort between law enforcement and the mental health community to help officers handle incidents involving mentally ill people. Officers receive 40 hours of training in mental illness and the local mental health system.
Ohio has more Crisis Intervention Team trained officers than any other state with more than 2,000 officers in 55 counties, including officers from 43 sheriff's departments and 175 police departments.
Ohio also leads in the training of 17 university campus security departments, already recognizing that students also often deal with mental health issues in which loneliness, financial burdens and other stressors can aggravate.
"Our campus security officers have training that might help them better deal with a future crisis similar to Virginia Tech," Justice Stratton said. "We know that people with mental illnesses who receive treatment are no more likely to be violent than a person without mental illness and that access to effective mental health treatment is highly variable across states and communities. We also know that when officials in the criminal justice system work in close collaboration with their counterparts in the mental health system, increased public safety can be achieved with a better use of tax dollars."
Increasingly, people with mental illnesses are becoming familiar faces in courtrooms and filling prisons and jails, Stratton said. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly a quarter of both state prisoners and jail inmates who reported they had a mental health problem, had served three or more prior sentences.
The conference's objectives also gained the endorsement of Ohio Governor Ted Strickland this week.
"Our nation's jails and prisons are becoming increasingly populated by individuals with mental illness. As a psychologist, I believe that our society has the obligation to insure that those with mental illnesses get the treatment they need and deserve," Governor Strickland said. "In Congress, I introduced the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act to help communities establish diversion programs for offenders with mental illness and transitional programs for such offenders who have completed their sentences. The Ohio Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Mental Illness and the Courts is a stellar example of the statewide collaborative body necessary to put such reforms in place. I am proud that Ohio can serve as a model for other states in this regard."
A total of 23 states applied for the one-year grant through a competitive application process, and seven states were selected. The grants are supported by the JEHT Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. As recipients of the grants, states receive funding support, access to leading experts, and technical assistance from the Council of State Governments and the National GAINS/TAPA Center.
Like Ohio's Advisory Committee, the state task forces will be comprised of judges, law enforcement, mediation experts, housing and treatment providers, consumer advocacy groups, and other officials with an interest in mental health and the courts. Ohio's Advisory Committee was created nearly six years ago out of the observation that more jails and prisons are housing individuals with mental illness, and a desire to collaborate to find better ways to serve them and the taxpayers.