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Ohio Chief Justice helps kick off county’s mental health court docket

County jails were never meant to be de facto mental institutions, but they have become them, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor said Thursday.

O’Connor was the keynote speaker as the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court inaugurated its mental health docket — the fourth specialty court after drug treatment, veteran’s court and the women’s therapeutic docket.

O’Connor, Judge Gregory Singer and Dayton Municipal Court Judge Carl Henderson presided over the ceremony for the docket starting next month in Singer’s courtroom.

“The mental health courts are, I think, essential to our system because there’s no bigger mental confinement institution than our jails and our prison system,” O’Connor said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News before speaking to an audience of service and treatment providers plus probation, court and judicial staff members along with judges and politicians.

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“That’s the beauty of the concept of the mental health courts — is that they are answering for what they did as far as their criminal activity,” O’Connor added. “But the treatment component is a condition of their participation … and it addresses the root cause of why they are acting in an anti-social manner. So I think they are essential; they truly are.”

Judge Mary Katherine Huffman said the common pleas court added the drug court in 1996, the veterans’ treatment court in 2013, the women’s therapeutic court in 2014 and now has Ohio’s 40th mental health docket.

“Judge Singer has been a leader in the area of specialty courts,” Huffman said. “In 2014, he spearheaded … he was very passionate about beginning our women’s therapeutic court.”

Montgomery County Common Pleas Court administrator James Dare complimented Singer and his staff for starting the new docket and getting it certified by the Ohio Supreme Court.

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“This population has been under served,” Dare said. “And we want to make sure that those services are right there, up front, when people are going in front of the judge.”

O’Connor noted that Henderson oversees a municipal court mental health docket started by former Judge John Pickrel and that Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi has a similar initiative.

O’Connor said Singer fits the mold of the county’s judicial innovators.

“He is in tune with what I would call the deep dive that is necessary these days to get at the complicated facts of each case,” O’Connor said. “As our society, our shared problems in our judiciary become much more complex, this is what specialized dockets are all about — getting closer to the root causes of society’s problems as they expand.”

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The chief justice said that among the mental health dockets goals are: diverting non-violent offenders away from the traditional criminal justice track; reducing the length of confinement of offenders with serious mental illness; improving mental health and the well-being of the participants; increasing access to treatment services; and creating effective working relationships between the treatment community and the criminal justice system.

“These measures are designed to reduce recidivism, which improves public safety,” O’Connor said, adding that efforts also should reduce the jail and prison population.

“It does sound daunting, doesn’t it? Well, it is,” O’Connor said. “But with mental health courts and other specialized dockets, we can bring together greater resources to solve these problems.”

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