November 2009         
www.namiohio.org

Mark Howdyshell

Prosecuting Attorney, Morgan County

                             Attorney Mark Howdyshell

Mark Howdyshell, County Prosecutor for Morgan County, just closed the books on a heinous crime in which a 17 year old violently took the life of a woman who had befriended him and tried to provide him stability.  The victim impact statements from the woman’s family were heart wrenching.  In this case, the young man involved did not have a mental illness, and did not claim to be hearing voices telling him to kill his victim.  It was a case of a true sociopath who showed no remorse for his crime.  There was no motive, no explanation for the family to cling to.  These sensational cases take their toll on everyone involved, including the members of the jury, attorneys and the judge.  Fortunately, they are the rare exception to the workings of a local criminal justice system.

As county prosecutor, Howdyshell has an opportunity to be involved in a wide swatch of community issues.  “A county prosecutor deals with everything from animal control issues to homelessness to suicide to homicide,” Howdyshell explained.  “A prosecutor must work with other county government officials to address issues in a way that has the most potential for long-term positive change.  Incarceration is not always the best answer and it’s expensive.” 

The impact of mental illness is seen daily in Morgan County as it is in counties throughout Ohio.   “Morgan County has a reputation for tolerance and acceptance so people with mental illness who may pass through other counties often find a home of sorts in our area.  We see too many people with mental illness living in

conditions that most of us would find unacceptable.  Obviously these people are a concern to the community. We don’t want people to go without food or live in unsafe conditions.  It is important that we try to get them plugged into services,” said Howdyshell.

“When individuals with mental illness come to the attention of the County Prosecutor, usually as a result of some low level offense, our office works closely with Adult Protective Services, Six County Behavioral Health, the Developmental Disabilities board and other county service providers.  The challenge we often face is getting the person to accept the services that are available,” Howdyshell said. 

We see too many people with mental illness living in conditions that most of us would find unacceptable. 

“When the person has a mental illness, developing trust is often the first step.  This may take time, but it offers the potential for a positive outcome that criminal charges and incarceration do not.  For example, we have an elderly, bachelor gentleman who lives in the area and experiences dementia, some paranoia and has become a hermit.  He owns cattle and loves them as though they are his children.  His fence had fallen into disrepair and his cattle were getting out and wandering onto the highway.  We had two automobile accidents involving his loose cattle.  Clearly, this had become a public safety issue.  I spent two months establishing a relationship with him and getting him to the point where he could trust me.  I visited him regularly and brought him things from town that he requested.   Finally, I gained his trust and was able to convince him to repair his fence.  Morgan County was able to avoid the expense of prosecuting him and we were able to secure the community’s safety.” 

“However, not all interventions have a positive outcome,” Howdyshell cautions.  “We had another situation in which the Morgan County Sheriff was aware of a potentially dangerous situation involving a man with a history of mental illness.  While the Sheriff knew that the man was a safety risk, he was able to avoid an involuntary commitment because of his experience with law enforcement officials, knowing how to answer the questions and avoid being probated.  Sadly, the man took his own life and that of his sister.”  These are the difficult cases for the criminal justice system because the system’s alternatives are limited by personal rights.  “In my opinion, the pendulum of personal rights may have swung too far in the wrong direction and often renders government ineffective.  While I certainly support individual rights, at the same time, it is easy to argue that there are some who would benefit from involuntary treatment,” said Howdyshell.  “Finding the balance is a difficult conundrum.” 

When asked what advice he has for his colleagues, Howdyshell said, “Take the time to understand what is going on.  Don’t assume that their action is a choice.  Mental illness is not an excuse, but it may be an explanation.  We need to look for solutions that make sense.  Solutions that are typically used for the common criminal are usually costly and ineffective when applied to offenders with mental illness.”

Finally, Howdyshell urged families to not give up.  “I routinely see families that are worn out.  I encourage them not to give up because persistence usually finds its reward.  It can take a long time to find the right person to provide the critical link that has been missing.  With the family’s continued support, we are all better positioned to help.”

Mental Health Advocates Call on Lawmakers to Spare Mental Health

Lack of Treatment Access Increases Deaths

NAMI Ohio called on the Members of the Ohio Senate to spare the Ohio Department of Mental Health from any additional cuts that they may be considering as part of the effort to fix the $851 million hole in the state’s budget.

“Perhaps we haven’t been as clear in our message to the General Assembly as we need to be,” said Jim Mauro, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio (NAMI Ohio).  “The truth of the matter is this… the public’s safety is being compromised because of cuts already sustained in the community mental health system.  Additional cuts will only exacerbate what is already a dangerous situation.”

“There is no question that individuals with mental illness are statistically more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime.  However, when someone with an untreated mental health disorder abuses substances, or finds themselves in despair because they have lost their job, the combination can be lethal – to themselves and to others,” Mauro said.  “The most important thing that people in these situations can do is ask for help, but as it stands now, there is little help to be had.”

“NAMI members are not above begging, and we’re begging.  Please, whatever you decide to do to fix this budget hole, spare mental health,” Mauro said.

 

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