By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter
MOUNT VERNON — Representatives from law enforcement, the judicial system and mental health advocates gathered Friday to hear retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton discuss ways to help mentally ill individuals who keep revolving through correctional facilities.
The Stepping Up Initiative is designed to help those with mental illnesses and co-occurring substance use disorders safely stay out of jail and on a path to recovery. Nationally, estimates are that 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails; in Ohio, as many as 30 percent or more of those in jail have mental illnesses. Locally, Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer said last fall that he estimates the number to be 70 percent, if not higher.
Juvenile/Probate Judge Jennifer Springer is coordinating Knox County's participation in the program. “This is a very important initiative, near and dear to our hearts,” she said. “We are here for our youth and the community, and not only the youth but the families.”
Much of the time was devoted to participants introducing themselves and giving a brief overview of their jobs and the services they offer. As individuals mentioned various topics, Stratton handed out booklets and newsletters, offered suggestions and provided other resources to help them fulfill their mission.
The goal of the introductions was to familiarize everyone with the range of services offered. Stratton said that she was impressed with the amount of inter-agency collaboration already taking place in Knox County. Brittany Whitney, assistant law director for the city of Mount Vernon, said the meeting opened her eyes to the many resources available in the community that she did not know were available.
Stratton said that at the state level, the Stepping Up Steering Committee is working in several areas:
Trying to get a budget that will help with medications
Working on getting 12 triage centers that will place individuals where they can get help and treatment rather than letting them languish in jail
Trying to get a budget for managed care in the prison system
Stratton said that she first saw mental illness when she became a common pleas judge. Prior to joining the bench, she practiced as a civil lawyer and did not have much experience with criminal law. She said she understood, however, that some of the people she saw in her courtroom did not belong there. She began to promote crisis intervention training, mental health courts and other ways to help those with mental illness. That work eventually led to her involvement in the Stepping Up Initiative.