Ohio Mental Health Court Opens
Mental health court program hopes to help those in need
By Jamie Hetrick
Convicted criminals suffering from mental health issues may get a second chance at freedom with the initiation of a mental health court program.
The mental health court program, oversaw by Miami County Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth Gutmann, was introduced into a Miami County courtroom just one month ago.
A concept founded by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton, the program was developed to allow individuals within the court system suffering from a severe mental illness to pursue recovery.
With three individuals currently in the mental health court program, the small group meets weekly in the presence of a case manager, parole officer, mental health counselor and Gutmann, whose role typically is mediator.
Gutmann said the program allows the participants, who already are in the court system post conviction, to set and work toward accomplishing goals in a group setting.
"The program is not a therapy session," Gutmann said. "The motivation is to deal with them in an efficient, effective manner."
As they progress, the meetings will become less frequent, until ultimately, participants accomplish goals in three phases and graduate from the program, a process Gutmann estimates may take one to two years.
Phase 1 requires keeping court appearances and doctor's appointments, maintaining medications and being able to verbalize expectations. Phase 2 consists of a continuation of Phase 1, counseling, participation in a life skills program, negative drug screenings, maintaining employment and a detailed recovery plan. Finally, Phase 3 - and the last step to independence outside the court system - demands compliance with mental health treatment plans, continued negative drug screenings, participation in daily activities and stable housing and employment.
Although individuals may be brought into the court program in a variety of ways, including by the suggestion of a parole or law enforcement officer or a Miami County judge, a mental health professional screens each individual to ensure the program's appropriateness.
It is unknown how many individuals already in the court system may be suffering from a severe mental illness, which may be in effect enabling criminal behavior, but Gutmann said she suspects the number is high.
"When people do suffer from mental health issues, they are usually in denial," she said.
The mental health program is based on the drug court concept and both programs are strictly attended on a volunteer basis.
Gutmann said the drug court, utilized for five years in Miami County, has proven to be an "effective program."
In the estimated two-year program, participants must "stay clean" for six months, live independently and be able to maintain employment.
As where sometimes jail is the best way to approach an individual with a drug addiction, individuals suffering from a severe mental health illness, such as bipolar, schizophrenia and major depression, are more difficult to jail, Gutmann said.
In its early stages, it would be difficult to predict the effectiveness of the mental health court in the county, however, "based on the support from the Supreme Court," Gutmann said she is excited about the program.
A judge for 25 years, Gutmann said she hopes the program will keep individuals out of the court system.
At no cost to taxpayers, the Tri-County Board of Recovery and Mental Health Services allotted an additional $5,000 for the specialized program within Miami County.
"The ultimate goal is to leave with the tools and have a happy, productive life outside the criminal justice system," Gutmann said.