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Local judges work to combat mental health issues in the court system

Lorain and Lucas County each have their own approach to deal with a growing public issue.
Published: Feb. 23, 2021 at 9:16 PM EST
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi started a wellness court after he says he saw the same people struggling with mental illness in and out of his courtroom.

“The attorney has to say we really don’t have a defense the best thing is to get your help and put you on probation,” he explains of the wellness program, which requires defendants to plead guilty.

From there, a team of mental health workers, a defense lawyer, and a prosecutor review the cases. There are 20 participants and one probation officer assigned to all cases in the county.

“We review who’s got challenges and try to come up with solutions in the first hour,” explains the judge. “The second hour, the participants join us.”

He says most of the participants are repeat offenders.

“Some of them, if they don’t have a previous record may be in a separate track where if they complete the program successfully they may be able to seal the case so they don’t have a conviction,” he says.

The program has four phases, including Orientation, Stabilization, Re-integration into the community, and Maintenance. In the final phase, participants show they can maintain their ability outside of the program.

The program doesn’t have any graduates yet but the judge hopes it will be a safety improvement for everyone in the community.

“We as courts, jails, and prisons have become de facto mental health providers, and that’s a shame,” says Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Lindsay Navarre.

In fact, 24% of Lucas County Jail inmates have screened positive for serious mental illness. To help combat the issue, Navarre began pursuing a dedicated mental health court but had to put it on hold due to a lack of resources. She’s now decided to work to strengthen the foundation in hopes of building the program.

In November, the judge and county leadership created a group called the Felony Fact Team through Unison.

“What Unison has agreed to do is provide services to the Lucas County Common Pleas Court specifically for individuals placed on probation who have serious persistent mental illness,” she explains. “What we can do as judges here in common pleas court is just refer individuals with mental illness suffering with that directly to this team and they provide comprehensive wraparound services.”

She says the Felony Fact Team looks at all avenues of the defendant’s lives to help them succeed and improve the safety of the community.

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