Building on growing national momentum to reduce the prevalence of people with mental illnesses in jails, county and state leaders from Ohio gathered this month in Columbus for a daylong Stepping Up summit.
The initiative—which was launched in May 2015 as a partnership between The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, The National Association of Counties, and The American Psychiatric Association Foundation—is designed to rally leaders around the goal of achieving a reduction in the number of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders in jail. In April, the National Stepping Up Summit brought together leaders from dozens of counties across the country to address the mental health crisis in their jails, but Ohio is the first state to host a state-specific Stepping Up summit.
“We are proud to be a leader in a national effort,” said retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton (pictured above, with Dr. Fred Osher, director of Health Systems and Services Policy at the CSG Justice Center), who will serve as project director of Ohio Stepping Up. “Our work will improve public safety, break the cycle of jail for persons with mental illness, and increase their access to treatment.”
Jail administrators, law enforcement officials, elected officials, treatment providers and stakeholders from 23 Ohio counties attended the Ohio Stepping Up Summit where they heard from Justice Stratton and several other experts, including Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Director Tracy Plouck, Ohio Attorney General Superintendent Bureau of Criminal Investigation Tom Stickrath, Marilyn Brown, Franklin County Commissioner, Judge Taryn Heath, Stark County Common Pleas Court, Sheriff Joe Browning, Gallia County and Dr. Fred Osher, director of Health Systems and Services Policy at the CSG Justice Center.
At the summit, county teams attended working sessions framed around six questions related to the commitment of their local leadership, their use of screening and assessments, the existing level of baseline data in their county, the degree to which they track progress, and other considerations. The county teams also received access to online resources including webinars, planning and technical assistance tools, and distance-learning opportunities.
“This is about people’s lives and the difference that we can make by learning what other people are doing and incorporating those ideas to make a better life for our constituents,” said Marilyn Brown, commissioner of Franklin County.
Each year, an estimated two million people with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the nation—a rate that’s three to six times higher than that of the general public. Nearly three-quarters of these adults also have drug and alcohol use problems. Once incarcerated, individuals with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and, upon release, are at a higher risk of returning to incarceration than those without these illnesses.
“The number of people with mental illnesses in U.S. jails has reached a crisis level,” said Plouck, who also serves on the CSG Justice Center’s board of directors. “The vast majority of these individuals who have committed minor offenses can be safely treated and, if necessary, placed under community supervision instead of being put behind bars.”
Since its launch, Stepping Up has garnered widespread support among criminal justice and behavioral health professionals and advocacy groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To date, more than 270 counties in 41 states—including 34 Ohio counties—have passed resolutions to advance the goals of Stepping Up.