Tuesday, February 25, 2003

New court to deal with mentally ill

Goal is to get them into treatment, not prison

By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County is launching a mental health court to route some people into treatment instead of jail when they break the law.

Scheduled to start March 4, the court will be one of only a few scattered across the state, and a growing number nationwide.

Mental health court could serve as many as 100 people a year who committed nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses that appear to spring from untreated mental illness.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth B. Mattingly said the program would ensure offenders get better care while reducing law enforcement expenses.

Rather than face months in jail for offenses like disorderly conduct, people who qualify for the mental health court will be given the choice of joining a court-monitored treatment program.

"There's been too much of a disconnect between the mental health system and the court system in terms of dealing with people who are mentally ill," said Patrick Tribbe, CEO of the Hamilton County Community Mental Health Board. "Police are running into people with serious mental illnesses out on the street and arresting them time and time again.

"Hopefully, if we really provide structural treatment, we can break the cycle and get these people where they need to be, which is in treatment," Tribbe said.

There are about a dozen mental health courts across the country. Indianapolis was a pioneer in starting such a program five years ago.

In Ohio, Akron has a mental health court and Fairfield started one last year. Tribbe said there are stirrings all across the state.

In a 2000 study of mental illness and substance abuse in the criminal justice system, the Mental Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati found changes in public policy - including the deinstitutionalization of people with severe mental illness and mandatory sentences for drug offenses - have resulted in increasing numbers of people with mental health and substance abuse disorders being incarcerated.

"Prisons and jails are becoming places not only for punishment, but also for treatment and rehabilitation," according to the study. "The criminal justice system has found itself in the position of having to provide treatment for disorders it was never set up to handle."

With a $65,000 grant from the Health Foundation, a group of caregivers, judges, police officers and prosecutors got together and determined Hamilton County needed a mental health court.

County residents passed a mental health levy last year. The tax is directed to the Community Mental Health Board. Tribbe expects to put about $1 million a year into the court. The Health Foundation is also kicking in about $300,000.

"We have several repeat offenders that keep coming back with mental health issues," said county Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. "They don't belong here, but there is no other option - until now."

The Cincinnati Police Department created a mental health response team last July. Several dozen officers received special training on dealing with people who have a mental illness, and are sent to calls where mental illness may play a role in the suspect's behavior.

E-mail sturco@enquirer.com

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