Sunday, February 14, 2010

Suit Seeks to Reform Prison System's Transitional and Post-Release Policies

This past Wednesday, the Enquirer reported that a group of former inmates have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court, alleging that Ohio's system for providing for the re-entry of inmates into society violates the Americans with Disabilities Act with respect to the provision of post-release mental health services. The core of the plaintiffs' claims can be found in paragraphs 98 and 99 of their complaint:

98. Defendants’ failure to engage in necessary pre-release planning for these inmates results in a “revolving door” phenomenon in which inmates with psychiatric disabilities are released without adequate support and accommodations, and are then reincarcerated for manifestations of their psychiatric disabilities.
99. Defendants fail to provide Plaintiffs and the class they represent with requisite pre-release accommodations, including but not limited to facilitating the submission of pre-release applications for assistance that would enable eligible Plaintiffs and the class they represent to obtain SSI, SSDI, Food Stamps and Medicaid immediately upon or shortly after their release from prison, connecting the offender with mental health services in the community in which they will be discharged, and insuring that the offender is discharged with appropriate medications. These accommodations could allow Plaintiffs and the class they represent to make a successful transition from the prison and into a community. Defendants could make important improvements in pre-release planning by taking a series of easy steps at little or no additional cost, yet they have failed to do so.

This is an extremely important issue. Every criminal defense attorney in town can talk about representing individuals who are accused of committing new offenses within months of release from an Ohio prison. It happens because there are simply too few resources to help ease the transition between incarceration and freedom. That transition can be difficult for anyone, but can be a nightmare for a former offender with significant mental health issues. The lawsuit seeks to force the State of Ohio to implement more transitional programs. These programs would constitute a "reasonable accommodation" of a disability, a mandate of the ADA.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, and--oh, yeah, our own Jack Harrison of Frost Brown Todd.

Interestingly, a possible solution--though one that has to be implemented locally rather than state-wide--may be discussed in a piece posted yesterday by USA Today. It talks about the success of the Richland County Reentry Court, a specialized docket (much like Hamilton County's drug or mental health courts) designed to put recently-released inmates in touch with the resources they need to survive outside the institution.

OJPC has been extremely successful in achieving statewide reforms with past lawsuits. Over the last five years, OJPC reached agreements with the state regarding the medical care of inmates and (separately) regarding Ohio's juvenile justice system and DYS. It'll be interesting to see what comes of the present litigation.

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