A Modern Day Dorothea Dix in Ohio

      Ohio is known for providing some of the best care in the nation for persons with mental disorders and one reason why is the tireless and creative leadership of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton. 

     When it comes to the criminal justice system, Justice Stratton reminds me of the legendary social reformer Dorothea Dix who preached that persons with mental disorders deserved treatment, not punishment in jails and prisons. Dix was largely responsible for the building and spread of state asylums in America in the mid-1800s.  Justice Stratton could be credited with helping spark the growth of mental health courts across our nation.

      What’s a mental health court?
      It’s a court specifically created to adjudicate cases that involve defendants who have mental disorders. The focus is on getting the accused treatment and rehabilitation, rather than locking them up, which often only exasperates the problem by making an already ill defendant sicker and putting the public at greater risk when that prisoner is released.    
     Of course, not everyone likes mental health courts because a judge has the power to order someone into a treatment program and to take anti-psychotic medication. But most of the time, a defendant has a choice when it comes to appearing before a mental health judge or going through the normal judicial process, and in most of the jurisdictions that I am familiar with, the defendants overwhelmingly chose to be on the mental health docket.
   Justice Stratton’s background is as unique as she is. Her parents were missionaries in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was born. She attended boarding schools in South Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War. At age 18, she came to the U.S. with only a few hundred dollars in her pocket and worked her way through college and law school.
     A political conservative, she became one of Ohio’s first female judges and quickly earned the nickname “the Velvet Hammer” because of her tough sentencing of felons. In 1996, she was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court — a position that enabled her to shine a spotlight on mental health issues.
    She began by forming the Ohio Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Mental Illness & the Courts, which brought together mental health, law enforcement and criminal justice professionals. With her leadership and proding, these different factions began developing creative ways to deal with persons who were sick and were flooding into Ohio’s criminal justice system.
     Under Justice Stratton’s watchful eye, mental health courts began popping up all over Ohio. But she didn’t stop there. She co-founded the national Judges’ Leadership Initiative, a professional association that began helping other states create mental health courts and develop programs aimed at helping persons break the streets-to-jail-to-streets-cycle that they were stuck on.
     Justice Stratton has now taken up another cause — the plight of veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries  (TBIs)– both major problems for our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
     Among other progressive improvements, she is campaigning for the creation of Veterans Courts.
    Here’s why.
    Case One: Wayne M. was arrested six months after the Marines discharged him. He’d spent the last year of duty working as an aircraft mechanic on a flight line in Afghanistan where his base was under near constant attack. His way of coping with the horrors that he saw was by drinking home-made alcohol and he was kicked out of the service a few days before his five-year commitment ended.  He returned to Albany, New York, where he got into a confrontation one night and ended up with three -year prison sentence. Only after it was too late, did doctors diagnose him as having PTSD.
    Case Two: Gary P. planned on being a military lifer, but while serving in Iraq in 2006, he hurt his back and was forced to take a medical discharge. Gary started smoking marijuana to cope with nightmares and sleepless nights. Unable to work full-time because of his back injury, he began selling marijuana and was arrested.
    But unlike Wayne, Gary did not go to prison. Instead, he was diverted into a Veterans Court after he was diagnosed with PTSD and a judge set aside a jail sentence in return for Gary entering a veteran’s PTSD treatment program.
    Gary P. now is working and paying taxes. Wayne M. is costing taxpayers as much as $45,000 per year sitting in jail and has not received any help for his PTSD.
    In 2008, the Rand Corporation estimated that 300,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from PTSD and 320,000 others will suffer from TBIs. Many will self-medicate with illicit drugs and/or alcohol. Others will commit suicide.
    In 2009, Justice Stratton convened the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative to explore collaboration between the Ohio courts and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her goal is to develop programs that will help returning veterans and not punish them for PTSD or TBIs that they incurred while defending our freedom.
     Through the development of mental health and veterans courts, Justice Stratton is changing and saving the lives of persons whose root crime is that they suffered a brain disorder.
     Our nation would be better served if we had more like her on the bench.
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. We usually think of the court system as the defender of individual rights and civil liberties.

    It is unfortunate individuals labeled “mentally ill” are a class of people who lack the right of informed consent and can be forced to ingest potentially lethal psychoactive drugs against that person’s will.

    As well, a judge who does not have the medical background to order valid testing and treatment for Substance Induced Psychosis and Medical Conditions that Induce Psychosis as defined by the DSM-IV, has the power and authority to override an individual’s civil liberties and freedoms to force medical treatment.

    Doctors should be ordered to rule out the list of underlying conditions of psychosis and mania, before a judge has the power to order forced medication management of mental health problems.


    Treating the root cause of the “brain disorder” should be the first course of action and would reduce recidivism by fixing the underlying problem, or at least recognizing the existance of it.

    There are many sane reasons an individual judged as “insane” would choose not to take psychiatric medications. Tardivd dyskinesia, renal damage, and brain dysfunction from ECT are but a few of the reasons for not submitting to psychiatric intervention.

    The research on lead poisonig should be considered by the court systems.

    Research Links Childhood Lead Exposure to Changes
    in Violent Crime Rates Throughout the 20th Century

    Rick Nevin, the author of this study, reviewed
    extensive research demonstrating that childhood
    lead exposure reduces IQ levels later in life, and he
    examined other research showing a strong association
    between low IQ and criminal behavior. He
    then conducted a statistical analysis of United States
    crime rate data and lead consumption data to determine
    whether changes in population lead exposure
    could explain subsequent trends in violent crime

  2. King Brown says

    This Judge is someone who disgusts me. She wants to rip away my right to be treated equally before the law, and so do you.

    “most of the time, a defendant has a choice when it comes to appearing before a mental health judge or going through the normal judicial process”

    Most of time, what about the other times, you clearly don’t mind. If knew that ‘most of the time’ I would press my brakes in my car they would work, but only ‘most of the time’, I wouldn’t drive my car.

    “Justice Stratton is changing and saving the lives of persons whose root crime is that they suffered a brain disorder.”

    You disgust me. Would you like to provide any evidence that a physician has examined these people’s brains and found them diseased?

    And you’re a person who despises me having human rights, who believes lies about me, very consequential lies that lead you to lobby my rights be taken away.

  3. Lynda Johnston Vance says

    I believe every military personnel coming out of a war zone should be screened for PTSD. some can cope others can’t. Noe can say for sure how many times my husband’s aunt woke being strangled because of her husbands’ untreated PTSD from WWII.

    We owe it to our military to address this issue. And to try to remove the stigma associated with mental illness.