Saturday, February 23, 2002

Taft appoints task force head

Board will protect mentally retarded

By Spencer Hunt and Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Gov. Bob Taft on Friday chose a northern Ohio county prosecutor to lead an effort to crack down on criminals who prey on mentally retarded Ohioans.

        Greg White, the Lorain County prosecutor and veteran of several state boards and commissions, will head up the new Victims of Crime task force. The panel's mission is to strengthen laws and give police more tools to protect the 63,000 mentally retarded people in the state's care.

        Mr. Taft announced the creation of the task force the day after an Enquirer special report found the state's mental retardation system routinely fails to prevent deaths, abuse and neglect.

        The newspaper identified 12 people who died under questionable circumstances over the past three years and found 80 to 120 people in the system die avoidable deaths each year.

        “I want to strictly enforce criminal laws that protect mentally retarded and disabled people from being victimized,” Mr. Taft said in a written statement.

        Mr. White's first job is to find judges, police officers, coroners, fellow prosecutors and other state officials to serve on the task force. He says an open discussion is needed to determine how to prosecute cases, especially when victims are impaired and may have trouble testifying.

        He said Lorain County prosecutors have handled cases in which mentally retarded people were abused in nursing homes and other programs. “We have a good feel for how problematic these cases can be,” he said.

        “When you start looking at cross-examining witnesses and the procedures we have to follow, you can see how it makes these cases difficult,” Mr. White said. “But that's not to say there aren't things we can do to improve the law. Certainly, training would be a part of that, too.”

        Ken Ritchey, director of the Department of Mental Retardation, is looking forward to working with Mr. White and the task force, a spokesman said.

        “We are very excited about getting started on this very important initiative,” said Robert Jennings.

        Mr. White was reluctant to talk about what the new task force will do or how long the work would take.

        “It's not a short-term task,” he said. “We're not talking years here, but if you want to take a really good look at Ohio and compare it to what's going on in other states, and then talk about what we need to do — it's going to take some time.”

        He's been down this road before — several times.

        Mr. White, 52, served from 1990 through 2001 as a member of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, the group that helped rewrite the state's felony and juvenile crime laws.

        Over the past two decades he's served on four other state and local commissions focused on crime victims. That includes most recently the Ohio Attorney General's Victims of Crime Advisory Board.

        Joe Andrews, spokesman for the governor, said Mr. Taft wants a strong mix of people on the task force, including police, judges, coroners and prosecutors.

        And, he said, the governor “wants them to move as quickly as possible.”


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