Law students urged to help mentally ill

First Posted: 3/27/2015

ADA — In many ways, Evelyn Stratton believes she is doing more for society as a retired Ohio Supreme Court justice than she did on the state’s highest court.

She has the free time to do what she wants and dedicate her life to causes for which she has a passion. On Friday, she spoke at a symposium at Ohio Northern University’s law school urging soon-to-be lawyers to get involved in helping people with mental illness and veterans who end up in the criminal justice system due to a mental illness.

“I have never looked back. I have never regretted it,” she said of her decision to leave the high court.

Stratton said she learned early in her career as a common pleas judge that courts, jails and prisons did not have a way to effectively help people with mental illness.

“I thought if I put people in jail, they would get some treatment in jail, so that’s what I did,” she said. “There was this huge disconnect.”

She quickly found out she was wrong.

“Jail has no idea how to treat them other than to isolate them,” she said.

When she was on the state’s highest court, she formed a committee to look at mental health problems of people coming before the courts in Ohio. Without funding and few people supporting her, she worked to get others involved.

Stratton and others quickly found out there were thousands of people repeatedly coming before the courts because of the same problem. The simple idea of treating that problem to keep them from committing new crimes is one she and others embraced.

“We did that step by step, inch by inch, piece by piece, advocate by advocate, person by person,” she said.

Soon, mental health courts, a special program in common pleas courts in Ohio, soon began to pop up across the state. Judges, probation officers, police and others worked to form teams to help defendants with mental illness who came before the courts, she said.

“The judge works as a catalyst and gets people talking and gets people collaborating,” she said.

Someone who is mentally ill and commits crime may be homeless. Someone with the court program works on getting that person a place to stay while another person works on getting the defendant treatment for the mental illness, she said.

Along the way, someone suggested starting a program at common pleas courts to help veterans. The Veterans Justice Outreach program was created. It works the same as a mental health court by helping veterans find services that help them with their problems, she said.

Ohio has 900,000 veterans, making it the state with the fifth largest veteran population in the country, she said.

Stratton urged law students to help out anyway they can especially when they become lawyers. Help people with mental illness or veterans at no cost, she said, as an example. But she also said there are little things they can do such as mowing a veteran’s lawn who cannot do it himself, that can make a big difference.

“Start somewhere,” she said.

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