Illinois courts seek compassion, hope for mentally ill

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois courts are taking steps toward better understanding mental illness and its growing impact on the judicial system, which state Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke said Tuesday too often lacks compassion, treats mental disorders as a crime and skirts alternatives to jail.

Burke told reporters that her “call to action” came in response to a report her committee issued last year after months of study. It’s part of a national effort to review courts’ interactions with defendants or litigants who deal with mental health issues and so-called co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse.

“The prevalence of mental illness and co-occurring disorders has been greatly impacting our nation, our states and our communities and has had a disproportionate effect on our courts,” said Burke, adding that the courtroom’s approach to mental illness should be one of “compassion and hope.”

Research by the National Center for State Courts-led initiative found that defendants with a serious mental illness remain longer in jail than others facing similar charges, that access to appropriate health care is rare or often unavailable, and that courts rely too heavily on competency to stand trial, which leaves too many defendants waiting in jail for “restoration.”

In short, said Patti Tobias, principal court management consultant for the national center, what’s needed is a “decriminalization” of mental health problems.

“Mental illness is not a crime. It’s a brain disorder,” Tobias said. “Serious mental Illness impacts all of our court dockets. Access to care is often scarce or non-existent, and the treatment gaps are even worse for persons of color.”

Courts must coordinate with community health programs in cases when a mentally ill defendant could be diverted from jail, Tobias said. There must be a more focused approach to case management to ensure its suitability to the individual and to reduce repeat criminal activity. The use of competency restoration must be limited to the most serious crimes, she said.

And Tobias urged federal regulators to ensure that by summer 2022 the 988 emergency-call alternative to 911 is implemented so that properly trained individuals respond to calls about mentally ill people in crisis, rather than police officers.

Scott Block, the newly hired statewide behavioral health administrator for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, will lead the effort to find suitable solutions, working with and expanding the current task force.

Sen. Laura Fine, chairwoman of the Mental and Behavioral Health Committee, said the “effort will allow for a well-rounded approach to supporting and treating” those with mental illness.

The Glenview Democrat noted that lawmakers this year approved legislation to make telehealth visits for mental health permanent; strengthened laws that allow a health care provider, and not an insurance company, to determine necessary mental health treatment; and a law preparing the state for the 988 code.

“By working together, we will live in a state where mental health and health care are an issue and not a crime,” Fine said.

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