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Illinois Mental Health Courts

Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties have all established mental health courts which offer a sentencing program as an alternative to incarceration.  In a perfect world, courts would rule with a firm but caring hand and these mental health courts accomplish exactly that.   Mental health courts offer programs include group and individual therapy, drug rehabilitation, and anger management.  While mental health court does fulfill defendants’ therapeutic needs, it goes beyond that.  In addition to frequent court appearances and therapy sessions, mental health courts help defendants to obtain housing, employment, and refer them to mental health professionals who can continue their treatment and administer medication after they leave the Treatment Alternative Court mental health program.

Mental Illness

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults have or will have a serious mental illness in their lives.  This includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and major depression.  Approximately 24% of state prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition.  Although it is difficult to find clear statistical evidence, psychology experts believe there is an overlap between the staggering amount of Americans suffering from mental illness and the number of people put before criminal courts. Mental illness can be the result of an individual’s environment.  Exposure to domestic violence, abuse, or genetics and can result in engaging in criminal activity.

Eligibility Requirements

In order to be considered for admittance into the mental health court program, the court, prosecutor, and defendant all must agree.  A defendant who does not show a willingness to participate in the program will not be allowed into the program.  The crime in question must be of a non-violent nature and the offender’s unmanaged mental illness must be a major contributing factor.  Unmanaged mental illness includes an offender’s undiagnosed mental illness qualifies them for the program, so long as they agree to take part in the program.  Other factors the court considers are whether the defendant is eligible for probation and his or her criminal history.

Are Mental Health Courts Successful?

If you ask most of the defendants or their families about the success of mental health courts, you will likely hear stories about how they beat a drug addiction or have finally learned manage their mental condition.  Leticia Sotelo of Elgin went through mental health court and has nothing but good things to say about the program.  Despite a less than perfect record, Sotelo passed the required eligibility screening and assessment to enter the program and after serving her time admitted that she was “scared to leave” because of how well it worked in helping her to stabilize her condition.

Despite the anecdotal evidence, there are still skeptics of the program’s success. A study published by the American Psychological Association reported that less than 10% of crimes committed by people with serious mental illness were directly related to the symptoms of that mental illness. Although the goals of the program are “to keep people with mental illnesses out of jail, help them avoid future crimes, and teach them to manage their mental conditions,” approximately 16% of the program’s graduates are repeat offenders and 39% fail to even complete the program. However, record-keeping across the State of Illinois is inconsistent and in some places non-existent so the statistics may be skewed. Illinois courts are working toward creating a uniform system of record-keeping so that the successes of the Treatment Alternative Court mental health program can truly be exposed.

R.F. Wittmeyer

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