December 20, 2014

Elyria
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Mental health court an alternative to prison

ELYRIA — The county’s judges are considering creating a mental health court that would focus on getting the mentally ill treatment instead of sending them to prison.

Malcolm Peel, an Ohio board member of the National Alliance of Mental Illness who proposed the idea in Lorain County, said the concept has had great success elsewhere in Ohio and around the nation.

Mentally ill people who commit crimes, he said, are often locked up instead of being treated. Once they are released and stop receiving the medications that keep them stable, they commit new crimes.

“They go off the helpful drugs, go back out into society and are brought back into the courts and the jails on the same offenses,” Peel said. “So the justice system becomes like a revolving door.”

A mental health court, he said, would provide ongoing treatment instead of incarceration, and the defendant would be closely monitored by the courts while receiving treatment.

County Common Pleas Presiding Judge Mark Betleski said he’s in favor of the idea because he believes mental illness is trumped only by drug and alcohol abuse as a root of crime. Criminals with mental problems shouldn’t simply be locked up but should be treated so they don’t commit additional crimes, he said.

“There’s impulse control issues, but it’s not so great an issue that you don’t know the difference between right and wrong, which is the standard for an insanity defense,” Betleski said. “You might know the difference between right and wrong, you just can’t help yourself.”

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, who will make a presentation on mental health courts to county officials later this month, said Tuesday that mental health courts are similar to drug courts, which treat and strictly monitor drug offenders instead of imprisoning them.

“We don’t think of it as soft on crime,” Stratton said. “We call it smart on crime.”

In many cases, she said, offenders who takes part in a mental health court might spend more time under court supervision than they would in prison. Most such courts around the state require a one- to two-year commitment from offenders who join the program.

“Our goal is to get them back into society,” Stratton said.

Even though Stratton and Peel said many health courts have gotten up and running without spending extra money, Lorain County Court Administrator Tim Lubbe said that if a mental health court is done right, it could cost between $700,000 to $1 million a year to fund a new judge and staff.

County Domestic Relations Judge Debra Boros said the idea is worth considering, but she and the other Domestic Relations judges want to learn more before committing to the concept.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.