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Thursday, March 6, 2014 12:01 am

Mental health court planned

Program may start this year

Sangamon County may launch a specialized court to handle cases involving mentally ill defendants by year’s end.

More than a dozen Illinois counties already have so-called mental health courts aimed at helping, not jailing, defendants whose crimes are rooted in mental illness. Getting treatment for mentally ill defendants and keeping them out of jail is a concept welcomed by judges, probation officers and cops.

“The bottom line is, what is the best way for Sangamon County to deal with these individuals who are entering the criminal justice system who have a mental illness,” says Sangamon County state’s attorney John Milhiser. “We need to protect the public, but we can do that by getting them (mentally ill defendants) treatment.”

Milhiser and other top officials in the criminal justice system as well as mental health treatment providers have met twice this year to discuss the scope of the problem and how best to address it. The planning effort is funded by a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will likely be followed by a request for another federal grant to pay for treatment and otherwise implement a plan. If all goes well, money could arrive in the fall and a program started by year’s end.

“We need the seed money to get things going,” says Michael Torchia, director of the county probation department. “The feds are willing to put seed money out there.”

Sangamon County undersheriff Jack Campbell sees a chance to save money. Mentally ill inmates can be dangerous, he says, and the county risks worker compensation claims from guards injured during struggles to control them.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Campell said. “Any time you can divert people who have mental complications away from the criminal justice system, it’s going to be a good thing for all the stakeholders involved.”

The push for a mental health court comes a year after the death of Alonso Travis, a schizophrenic who died of heart problems in the county jail nearly three weeks after a judge found that he was not competent to stand trial on battery charges stemming from an incident in which he spat on a guard (“No Room at the Inn,” Jan. 24, 2013). Travis, who spent the final five months of his life in jail after being arrested for misdemeanor battery, had been arrested more than 50 times in a little more than a year, typically for causing disturbances, trespassing, shoplifting or other misdemeanors.

“He’s Exhibit A in my speech as to why we need this,” says Sangamon County associate judge John “Mo” Madonia, who has been appointed by chief circuit judge Leslie Graves to represent the judiciary in the planning process. “I let Alonso loose several times, and I lectured him. … The catch-and-release part of the system simply causes more resources to be used and reused versus potentially diverting these individuals down a path that would lead them to not being reincarcerated and then released only to be reincarcerated.”

Mental health courts that substitute treatment for incarceration aren’t for everyone. Under state law, defendants accused of violent crimes such as murder or sexual assault or any offense involving guns aren’t eligible. Defendants must sign agreements on the front end acknowledging that they must abide by mental health court conditions or face incarceration or other sanctions.

Just how many defendants might benefit from mental health court isn’t clear.

“A lot people who get placed on probation, a lot of the time we don’t know if they’ve got a mental illness,” Torchia says. “A lot of times, they go through the system without ever being properly diagnosed.”

Michelle Rock, director of the Illinois Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health and Justice in Rockford that helps jurisdictions create mental health courts, drug courts and other alternatives to traditional courts, says that mental health courts vary between jurisdictions but they should all include a team with treatment providers. In Winnebago County, where Rock once worked as a prosecutor and an administrator of the county’s mental health court, the mental health court team includes a psychiatrist, a nurse and someone to work with families of defendants so that everyone understands such things as the nature of mental illness and the need for medication.

It is not, Rock says, a matter of being soft on crime.

“I think there’s justice and I think there’s fairness,” Rock says. “Locking up people is not the answer to our problems. We’re sending far too many people with behavioral health issues to our prisons.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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