Judge works to offer services to defendants with severe mental health disorders

Judge works to offer services to defendants with severe mental health disorders

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Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Lindsay Navarre stands behind the bench in her courtroom in the Lucas County Common Pleas Court on Wednesday, April 7, 2021.

Using a pilot program from Ottawa County as a model, Lucas County leaders and agencies have started a mental-health court to try to address the root issues that sometimes land people fighting mental illness in jail.

Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Lindsay Navarre said that in both her prior role as a county prosecutor and now on the bench, she has seen her share of mentally ill individuals revolving through the criminal-justice system.

But even with that background, she found the number of Lucas County jail inmates potentially suffering from severe mental illness to be surprisingly high after screenings began there in late 2019.

And once incarcerated, some such people regress without access to proper medication or therapeutic support, Judge Navarre said, nor are others on probation always successful at avoiding trouble.

“Pinpointing why has been nagging this court for decades,” she said. “I am surrounded by tremendously intelligent and hardworking colleagues who want to do the right thing — who want to help our community be a better and a safer place — but it’s like, how are we going to attack this differently?”

The mental health court approach resembles that of the county’s drug court, which operates under the premise that addressing substance-abuse problems can yank out the roots of resulting criminal behavior.

In neighboring Ottawa County, 11 people have completed the mental health court program since 2019.

“We have several individuals who are so thankful that they ended up in the court system, because they were finally required to engage in treatment,” said the program’s coordinator, Jaimee Prieur. “It’s so backwards and sad that’s the way it is, but I think having an entire treatment team behind them and in their corner, cheering them on, seems to be a big, key factor.”

The Lucas County jail’s screenings indicate plenty of candidates among its inmates.

Since December, 2019, the booking process has included a brief mental-health screening, said Lindsay Below, behavioral health criminal justice coordinator at the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, who oversaw the project.

Nearly 24 percent of the county jail’s current population screened positive for the potential of “serious and persistent” mental-health issues, she said, and that likely misses people who suffer mild to moderate depression, so the actual number is probably higher.

“That’s not encompassing all mental illnesses. Those are the most severe cases, so we’re talking about bipolar, paranoid schizophrenia,” Ms. Below said.

Judge Navarre’s mental health court plan got slowed down by the need to draft in-depth plans and funding initiatives for approval by the Ohio Supreme Court. An application for federal grant funding through Unison Health last year was denied because Lucas County already was receiving funds from that source, the judge noted.

That’s when Unison Health leaders stepped up to help. The agency set aside 20 slots for a pilot program, called the Felony Fact Team, utilizing some of the resources they already had.

It provides a comprehensive, wrap-around approach to help gain access to treatment, while improving their life, and ultimately reducing recidivism, said Jeff De Lay, Unison Health’s president and chief executive officer.

“We’re really excited for the opportunity, especially with Judge Navarre, to be able to change and disrupt the current system,” Mr. De Lay said.

Together, a team of medical staff, peer support, case managers, and housing and employment specialists, work through an intensive treatment model with individuals placed on probation who suffer from some of the most serious mental disorders. The team assesses a person’s needs in order to provide stability with housing, medication, or therapy.

The court has already referred 10 clients to the program, with the first joining in late December.

“I think a lot of them are really grateful that someone took the time to identify that they had a need, rather than just being punitive,” said Amanda Kern, vice president of Unison’s clinical operations. “Giving them access to treatment — some of them have never been in treatment before — and they have some long-standing trauma issues. They had no resources and they didn’t know how to find it. I think a lot of them are grateful for that opportunity.”

While some of the fine details need to be worked out, Judge Navarre said judges in the general division will work together to determine how programming may work best.

“This could really be a game-changer for how we treat individuals who have serious mental illness in the criminal justice system,” she said. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but so far, it’s been great and I’m anticipating reapplying for this grant in May and expanding what we do.”

First Published April 10, 2021, 1:51pm

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