SUMMIT COUNTY — The young man sat at a table at Stow Municipal Court Thursday afternoon explaining the trouble that had originally brought him there last year.
"I was in a confrontation with the police," said the 28-year-old, who wanted to remain anonymous. "I fled on foot and was not in a good mental state at the time. I was off my medication and that’s really not like me, to flee randomly on foot during a traffic stop."
But he was not at the court Thursday for a hearing, but a reception to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the court’s mental health court. Called STRIDE — Successful Treatment Results In Developing Excellence — it is designed to help defendants whose difficulties were largely due to mental illness, sometimes coupled with alcohol or drug addiction.
"I give Judge [Lisa] Coates credit for the program. It’s her baby," said Administrative Judge Kim R. Hoover.
Coates said she began to realize there was a need for such a program in 2009 when she was dealing with two individuals "struggling with mental health" and repeatedly coming back to the court.
"I kept thinking to myself, ‘I can keep dealing with them all the time or I can start looking into a mental health court,’" she said. "So in 2009, I went and toured multiple courts, municipal courts that have a mental health court. Akron, Columbiana County and Wayne County were my top three."
The two-year program is small in terms of the number of participants, whose involvement is entirely voluntary and in lieu of a criminal sentence. Since 2010, there have been 74 individuals who entered STRIDE, including 31 who have successfully graduated, another 31 who were removed from it because they were unable to meet its requirements, 10 who are current participants — including the man at the reception — and two who left through a mutually agreed-to termination for individual circumstances.
The low number of participants is in part due to stringent eligibility requirements, including:
• They must be Summit County residents.
• They must be charged with at least a third-degree misdemeanor, but not including operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, sex or weapons violations, or any offense involving a juvenile victim.
• It must be determined that mental illness was a contributing factor in the person being charged.
• The person must have a severe or persistent form of mental illness, but must also be stable enough to comply with program requirements.
• They cannot have a criminal history of violence that indicates a potential threat to the public or staffs of the court or participating agencies.
• They cannot have pending charges or be on probation in cases in other courts involving disqualifying charges.
• If they are charged for an offense involving physical harm to a victim, the victim must agree to the defendant entering STRIDE.
Once admitted, a treatment plan based on the individual’s case is put together. Requirements could include taking part in mental health and possibly substance abuse treatment, taking prescribed medications, getting stable housing and reliable transportation, completing high school or an equivalency, participating in vocational assessment and job training and getting and keeping a job. Other requirements could include additional counseling, such as parental or marital, and participation in some kind of community service.
"It’s a very intensive program," said Coates. "I think people with mental health issues need that, especially if they have co-occurring disorders. They need the intense engagement. I think that’s what makes it work."
She added that she believes that the two-year length is part of its success and she has resisted reducing its length.
"They need to be stable for awhile, have that consistency of staying sober and staying on medications so it can be a lifelong change," said Coates.
The young man at the reception said he could attest to the challenges of the program. He has been in it for about eight months now and is taking medication to treat anxiety and schizoaffective disorder, which can cause schizophrenic symptoms such as hallucinations, mania and depression, but is not actually schizophrenia.
"It’s good help," he said about STRIDE. "It’s very time consuming at times, though. They’re very demanding as far as drug testing and weekly meetings. I think people could really benefit from it, but again, it’s very demanding."
Coates said the court tries to help STRIDE participants in other ways that could impact their success, such as with relationships that may be causing problems and nutrition and exercise advice.
"We want this to be a lifestyle change," she said.
Coates said the court works with a number of Summit County agencies to provide the needed help, with the primary one being Community Support Services, which provides psychiatric treatment and medications, case management and help with housing and employment.
"I can’t even tell you all of the agencies we’ve used, a plethora of them in Summit County," she said. "We couldn’t do it without the team effort."
She said the court also has an "intensive probation" program or Mental Health Track that takes a year to get through and offers some of the same features for people who may have temporary issues, such as depression due to a divorce, but who may not currently be eligible for STRIDE. She said it could help people by itself or it could be a bridge to STRIDE if they become eligible. She credited Hoover with suggesting its creation.
Hoover said that in many cases, it has fallen on the courts by default to help those suffering from a mental health issue and who run afoul of the law.
"The criminal justice system is not a place for people who are suffering from debilitating mental illnesses, obviously," he said. "We used to have much more of a clinical, hospital, approach to deal with folks. But cuts and shutting down those kind of facilities, people are being dropped in courts for things and I’m not even sure they understand completely what they’ve done wrong."
He said the program is funded in part on the court’s end with nearly $30,000 in state grants and believes the court paid about $15,000 to $20,000 last year on top of that, not counting judge’s time.
He said he sees the court’s efforts as humanitarian and the right thing to do.
"I don’t find that it costs the taxpayers dramatically that we help the most vulnerable of our citizens," he said. "And so we try to take a parental approach toward them, the big goal being to help them as human beings and the side goal being to keep them out of the criminal justice system."
Coates said the goal is to keep the STRIDE participants out of jail now and in the future, if possible.
"What we’re trying to do here is get them back on track," she said. "They’ll serve society better if they’re taking their medications lifelong, staying sober lifelong, than just in and out of jail in this consistent roundabout circle that sometimes happens."
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JeffSaunders_RP.