Judges say mentally ill defendants need extra help in their courts. Here’s what they’re doing about it.

West Chester Area lll court Judge Dan Haughey presides over a preliminary hearing for Steven M. Toy, left, with attorney Ron James, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009. Staff photo by Greg Lynch

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West Chester Area lll court Judge Dan Haughey presides over a preliminary hearing for Steven M. Toy, left, with attorney Ron James, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009. Staff photo by Greg Lynch

Judges running mental health dockets throughout Butler County say the work they and others are doing reaps huge benefits not just for those in the programs but the community as a whole.

The latest court to be certified by the Ohio Supreme Court is the Butler County Area III Court — the other area courts are funneling clients to the West Chester court — and Middletown Municipal Court Judge James Sherron has been running a mental health review docket. He is starting the certification process with the high court.

Between the two courts, 642 criminal clients have been helped over the past year.

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Sherron said he has mental health specialists “embedded” in every docket in his court so they can intervene immediately in emergencies.

“If somebody is in obvious need of mental treatment or is potentially suicidal or something of that nature they get immediate attention, right there in the courtroom,” Sherron said. “It just amazingly decreases the steps and time to get them into treatment.

Sherron said about two-thirds of all court dockets include people suffering from mental illness, addiction issues or both, so “that’s the end game to get them into treatment as fast as possible, get them out of court.”

The new specialty court programs are supported by a three-year, $655,355 grant from the Butler County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board. Scott Rasmus, executive director of the MHRS board, said the the grant is graduated —$105,000 last year, $250,000 this year and $300,000 next year — so they can increase staff and program participants.

Access Counseling is the provider for the program handling treatment services, case management and other support for the courts, according to Rasmus.

Area III Court Judge Dan Haughey said the court has been running the treatment alternative court (TAC) since early last year so the Supreme Court could observe the operation as part of the certification process. There are six defendants currently on the official docket andanother five to 10 defendants receiving services on a mental health review docket.

A TAC program allows a misdemeanor defendant who pleads guilty to be transferred to the program for counseling and other support services, rather than punished. The program is one to two years long — depending on individual needs — and if the person is successful, the initial charged could be reduced or expunged altogether, the judge said.

Haughey said the “big picture” is he hopes to get some of the “regulars” on his criminal docket help so they can address issues that have made them repeat offenders.

“So this is one of those ways I’m hoping to divert some of those folks who would otherwise be appearing with some regularity, to be much more productive, contributing members of our community,” Haughey said. “The early returns have been good.”

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Rhonda Benson, executive director of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said people suffering from mental illnesses often resist getting help and taking their medication.

“It does help to have a judge backing a treatment program. Those people who don’t want treatment necessarily will go if they are court ordered,” Benson said. “And a lot of times they end up getting treatment and stabilizing and doing much better.”

Common Pleas Judge Noah Powers, who runs the felony Substance Abuse and Mental Illness (SAMI) court — it was the first of its kind when now retired Judge Michael Sage opened it in 1999 — said these programs don’t just help the individual participants but the community as whole.

He said getting people help keeps them out of the jail, hospitals, reduces the need for public safety interaction, cuts down on theft and other crimes, which in turn saves taxpayer dollars.

“It really covers the gamut,” he said.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, in congratulating the Area Courts, said these types of programs have proven benefits.

“Specialized dockets divert offenders toward criminal justice initiatives that employ tools and tailored services to treat and rehabilitate the offender so they can become productive members of society,” O’Connor said. “Studies have shown this approach works by reducing recidivism while saving tax dollars.”

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