Summit County, Ohio: As all rise for Judge Alison Breaux for the HOPE Mental Health Court, there’s little resemblance to a hospital unit or outpatient clinic with white-coated doctors. The judge in her black robe takes the bench, seated directly in front of the state and U.S. flags. The docket lists defendants and case numbers, not patients and diagnoses.
As the session moves forward, exchanges among court personnel and treatment team members sound a lot like discussions between health care providers and patients. Are participants complying with treatment plans? Are they compliant with their medications? If not in compliance, why? Despite the similarities to an exchange between physician and patient, this is a court of law.
“It’s very, very sad when mental illnesses go undiagnosed and/or untreated,” said Breaux, who was elected to the Summit County bench in November 2016. “When dealing with a mental illness that can be treated, isn’t the best-case scenario when an individual can understand his or her illness and live successfully with it, staying out of prison, jail and hospitals?” Breaux asked.
Reducing contact with the criminal justice system for participants with mental illness is a major program goal. Addressing underlying problems that can lead to criminal behavior and lowering the rate of recidivism are big-picture program aims.
To assist in the efforts of HOPE Court, the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services (OCJS) awarded a $64,142.56 grant to support the continuation and expansion of the HOPE Mental Health Court program. Grant funds will be used to support a full-time program case specialist.
Breaux says mental health court is a judicial approach “that really works,” although it’s not an overnight or magic solution. Consistency and accountability are important, but participants truly thrive because of the Team approach and patience the program offers.
With the potential to improve participants’ lives, Breaux says, “It is the most rewarding part of my job.” The goal, she explains, is to decriminalize mental illness. “I cannot incarcerate anyone out of schizophrenia,” concluded Breaux.