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Stepping Up

The Stepping Up Initiative

The Stepping Up Initiative ( is a national initiative targeted at reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. Without change, large numbers of people with mental illnesses (many with co-occurring substance use disorders) will continue to cycle through the criminal justice system, often resulting in missed opportunities to link them to treatment, tragic outcomes, inefficient use of funding, and failure to improve public safety. The mission of both the national and Ohio’s Stepping Up Initiative is to help criminal offenders with mental illnesses get connected to clinical treatment and other services so they can get well, make positive life changes, and stay out of jail. Directed by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton (ret.) and Project Manager Melissa Knopp, Esq., along with other state and county leaders, Stepping Up Ohio is supported by the CSG Justice Center and is generously funded by Peg’s Foundation.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM? It is pervasive. It is persistent. It is in every Ohio county jail. It is in counties all across the nation. “It” is a fact of our criminal justice system and it is a public health crisis: More people with mental illnesses are sitting, untreated, in local jails than ever before. Without the wide scale involvement of county leaders, Ohioans with mental illnesses (including those with co-occurring substance use disorders) will continue to cycle in and out of our criminal justice system.

Across the nation and in Ohio, jails have become a revolving door for people with mental illnesses. There are a lot of factors that have played into it, one of which is the long-ago closure of state-run institutions for those with severe mental illnesses. Discharged into the community, these patients put a strain on the already underfunded and ill-equipped community services.

And almost three-quarters of incarcerated adults with serious mental illnesses have co-occurring substance use disorders. Jails have become de facto inpatient psychiatric facilities across the nation. Ohio is no exception, either, with 30 percent or more of our incarcerated population having mental illnesses. Incarceration takes its toll on everyone: individuals, families, and even taxpayers. It’s more expensive to jail persons with mental illnesses than it is to provide community mental health services. It’s also in the interest of personal and public safety to help those who need mental health services get the treatment they need. Stepping Up Ohio is an adjunct of the national Stepping Up Initiative launched in 2015 by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, with support from the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

THE OHIO PROJECT is making strides in reducing the number of people with mental illnesses in our jails, thanks to the many Ohio counties that have committed to the Stepping Up Ohio initiative. Reform is coming and it will look something like this:

  • Validated screening and assessment tools
  • Diversion programs instead of jail time for those with mental illnesses charged with low-level crimes
  • Embedded mental health professionals to help ensure that people with mental illnesses are connect to community-based services
  • Specialized courts that meet the unique needs of defendants with mental illnesses • Training and response programs to improve law enforcement’s response to the needs of people with mental illnesses
  • Technical assistance and resources for housing needs

NAMI Ohio works in conjunction with the Ohio Stepping Up Initiative led by retired Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton. NAMI Ohio by provides technical assistance, educational resources and local supports to help individuals receive treatment in the most appropriate setting. 



NAMI Ohio is grassroots, advocacy organization created in 1982 by a small, dedicated group of family members. Its mission is to improve the quality of life, and ensure dignity and respect for persons with serious mental illness. It also offers much needed support to their families and close friends. NAMI Ohio is an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness with 40 of its own local affiliates across the state.

NAMI Ohio is Ohio’s voice for mental illness. Working with the Governor of Ohio’s Administration and Executive Agencies, and the Ohio General Assembly, NAMI Ohio advocates for mental health services and access to care, encouraging support of legislative policies and government funding related to mental health issues