COLUMBUS – Ohio has joined a growing national effort to reduce the number of persons with mental illness who cycle through county jails.
State and county officials in mid-June convened in Columbus to learn how the national Stepping Up Initiative is bringing local criminal justice and behavioral health systems together to improve public safety, access to services, and treatment outcomes.
The Stepping Up Initiative was launched in May 2015 as a partnership of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. The initiative is designed to rally national, state and local leaders around the goal of reducing the number of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders in jail.
“Ohio has been a leader in establishing mental health and veterans courts, developing crisis intervention teams in law enforcement and other efforts to reform the criminal justice system for persons with mental illness,” said retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, who serves as project director of the Ohio Stepping Up Initiative. “Once again, we are proud to be a leader in a national effort. Our work through the Stepping Up Initiative will improve public safety, break the cycle of jail for persons with mental illness, and increase their access to treatment.”
Jail administrators, law enforcement officials, elected officials, treatment providers and other stakeholders from 23 Ohio counties, including Gallia, attended the June 16 Ohio Stepping Up Summit. There they heard from Justice Stratton and several other state and national experts, including Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Director Tracy Plouck and Dr. Fred Osher, director of Health Systems and Services Policy at the CSG Justice Center.
At the summit, county teams attended working sessions framed by six questions related to the commitment of their local leadership, use of screening and assessments, the existing level of baseline data in their county, the degree to which they track progress and other considerations. As participants, Stepping Up counties receive access to an online resources toolkit to assist with their efforts, including a series of webinars, planning tools, resources, technical assistance and distance-learning opportunities.
“As sheriff, I am proud to be working toward a more manageable criminal justice and mental health system with director (Kevin) Mock from Woodland Centers and (Ret.) Justice Stratton,” said Gallia Sheriff Joe Browning. “I recognize that over-burdening our local jail system with people that could be treated in other settings is a serious issue, especially in smaller communities. The group here in Gallia County has come a long way toward improving the situation.”
An estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the nation — a rate that’s three to six times higher than that of the general public. Nearly three-quarters of these adults also have drug and alcohol use problems. Once incarcerated, individuals with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and upon release are at a higher risk of returning to incarceration than those without these illnesses.
“The number of people with mental illnesses in U.S. jails has reached a crisis level,” said Plouck, who also serves on the CSG Justice Center’s national board of directors. “The vast majority of these individuals who have committed minor offenses can be safely treated and, if necessary, placed under community supervision instead of being put behind bars. We’re excited to join this effort and look forward to working with our partners at all levels to help counties achieve their goals.”
Since its launch, Stepping Up has garnered widespread support among criminal justice, behavioral health and advocacy groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To date, more than 270 counties in 41 states have passed resolutions to advance the goals of Stepping Up.
“NAMI Ohio has advocated for better coordination between the criminal justice and mental health systems for years,” said Terry Russell, executive director. “We look forward to further collaboration with Ohio’s county sheriffs, jail administrators, judges, community corrections professionals, treatment providers, family members and people impacted by mental illness to provide them with the tools, resources and technical assistance to deal with this issue in a more humane and cost effective manner.”
Learn more about the Stepping Up Initiative at https://stepuptogether.org. View a map of participating Ohio counties, and see more about Ohio’s efforts to reduce the number of criminal offenders with untreated mental illness and/or substance use disorders who continually cycle through county jails at mha.ohio.gov/Default.aspx?tabid=852.