Speeches

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton
Solutions for the Mentally Ill in the Criminal Justice System
Jan. 30, 2002

Finding effective strategies for working with mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system is important to me, both personally and professionally.

As a family member of a person who once suffered from depression, I am aware of the stigma of mental illness. It is not a popular subject, but it is one that I am passionate about. As a former trial judge, I saw first hand the effects of mental illness on the legal system. I am extremely concerned about keeping people with mental illness out of jail and diverted into appropriate mental health treatment.

It is the right thing to do as well as a concept whose time has come. The numbers say it all.

A revolving door problem has developed in this country. Jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health system of our day. We must reverse this trend. Over the past few years, innovative diversion programs and other pioneering efforts across the nation have been successful in attacking this crisis. We must persevere to be able to provide community treatment for this population who were previously "warehoused," but who now are slipping through the cracks of our safety nets.

It is time in Ohio to address the need to reform the court system so that we can reduce these numbers. To this end, we have formed a mental health initiative task force made up of representatives from the Ohio Department of Mental Health, Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, Judges, law enforcement, mediation experts, housing and treatment providers, consumer advocacy groups, and other officials from across the state.

If not for altruistic reasons, this charge is crucial in terms of the cost savings to the taxpayer. Mentally ill inmates require far more jail and prison resources due to treatment and crisis intervention. But this revolving door has other costs, too. Taxpayer dollars are paying for police officers to repeatedly arrest, transport and process mentally ill defendants, jail costs associated with treatment and crisis intervention, salaries of judges and court staff, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and many more hidden costs. The question becomes would we rather spend these dollars to keep mentally ill citizens homeless, revolving in and out of our criminal justice system, or would we rather spend these dollars to help them to become stable productive citizens?

I invite and challenge you to join the efforts of this task force or create your own within your community. There is so much that we can do together. By building a partnership between courts and the mental health system, many defendants whose illness is the basis of their criminal activity can be helped, their lives improved, and taxpayers' money saved.

In the 1800's the greatest challenge to the mental health and criminal justice systems was to get the mentally ill out of jails and prisons and into appropriate treatment. Still today, we face the same problem. We cannot close our eyes to this issue anymore. So let's take a look at it together.

The above text by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton is based on remarks to the Columbus Metropolitan Club Jan. 30, 2002.