Presiding Judge Paul Biebel Discusses Cook County Court Response to Drug and Mental Health Problems

(Chicago, IL) — Mental illness, post-traumatic stress, and drug problems are among the clinical issues that disproportionately affect criminal defendants in courtrooms across the country. On December 12, the Honorable Paul P. Biebel, Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Court of Cook County, discussed the scope of these challenges. He also presented innovative court solutions that are being implemented with great success.

Judge Biebel offered his remarks at TASC’s Leadership Awards Luncheon at the Westin Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where he accepted the agency’s 2012 Justice Leadership Award.

This is the second of three posts on TASC’s annual event, which was highlighted by the words and wisdom of TASC’s 2012 honorees, Judge Paul Biebel and Christopher Kennedy Lawford.

TASC President Pamela Rodriguez introduced Judge Biebel, noting that he was one of the first judges in the country to support mental health courts not only for misdemeanants, but for non-violent felony offenders whose co-occurring mental health and addiction issues have led to their repeated arrests and re-incarceration. The Cook County Mental Health Court was launched in 2004 following early discussions between Judge Biebel, Judge Lawrence Fox, and TASC, followed by extensive planning and community engagement. It has demonstrated significant success in reducing recidivism among those whose health issues are the most challenging to treat.

“Judge Biebel supported felony mental health courts before anyone in the country,” Rodriguez said.  “He draws upon the strengths of partners and clinical experts and researchers, bringing individuals and organizations to the table who represent not only criminal justice interests, but also health, family, and community concerns.”

Judge Biebel accepted his award on behalf of the dedicated judges and court personnel who staff the 19 problem-solving courts in Cook County. Below are excerpts from his remarks, which began with appreciation for Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Christopher Kennedy Lawford, TASC, and all the assembled guests:

I am particularly honored to receive this award from TASC. They have been a critical partner to deal with drug and mental health issues in our courts.

I’d like to paint a picture of the challenges facing us in Chicago with regard to criminal justice, and most particularly with drug issues and mental health issues.

First, to put it in perspective, this is a massive operation we have here in Cook County, the largest unified court system in the world. I’m one of 420 judges, and one of 17 presiding judges. I have nearly 50 judges who work with me in the criminal division…

We have the largest and busiest criminal courthouse in the United States at 26th and California. This year we expect to have more than 22,000 felony dispositions…

Let me give you some facts that I think will paint the picture.

FACT:  72% of those arrested or who check in to that county jail behind our building have some evidence of illegal drugs in their system.

FACT:  Nearly 100,000 people proceed through that jail system every year.

FACT:  The drug trade in Chicago now is entirely controlled by the street gangs.

FACT:  The Chicago police say there are nearly 100,000 gang members in Chicago. The only other town that would resemble that would be Los Angeles.

FACT:  The profits from the sale of drugs are enormous. It is estimated that in Chicago alone, in a given year, the profits from drugs exceed one billion dollars.

Is it no wonder that in the last six years in Mexico, some 60,000 people have been killed in fights among and between drug cartels? Is it in fact no wonder that the money that is being used to fight the Americans in Afghanistan comes from the sale of heroin in this country because the essential ingredient, poppies, is grown in Afghanistan?

FACT: The number of mentally ill in our jails and prisons in the United States is shockingly high. If you take a study of the American population, 4 to 6 percent of the American population has a chronic mental illness – a mental illness that requires psychotropic medication… I’m talking about something where you cannot live without your meds – bipolar disorder, clinical depression, schizoaffective disorder. In the jail and prison context, that number spikes to 16 to 20 percent – and I think that’s low.

In the County Jail, of the women who are there, 80 percent have a chronic mental illness. And what is it? Post-traumatic stress—because they have been sexually abused as girls or young women. And 80 percent of the women in that jail are the sole caretakers of their children. Look at the societal cost that is paid when they average four or five kids.

Shocking statistic: The three largest mental hospitals in America are in municipal jails. The largest is Los Angeles County Jail, the second is here in Chicago—the Cook County Jail—and third is Rikers Island Jail in New York.

Today, in Cook County Jail, there are over 1700 people on psychotropic medication, out of somewhere more than 9,000 people in the population of the jail.

And the statistic that really hits me between the eyes:

FACT:  If you get out of jail or prison today, there’s a 50 percent chance you’ll be back in three years.

We’re recycling people at a very expensive rate and a high cost in human terms.

These facts and figures indicate in stark fashion the challenges that we face in the criminal justice system. But in the in the last decade or so, we in Cook County have created perhaps the most ambitious and far-reaching problem-solving court system of any county in America… We’re very proud of that and we’re very grateful for our wonderful partners in that effort, and one of the most important being our friends at TASC. Thank you, Pam, and thank everybody from TASC.

Our effort in regard to these persons in these problem-solving courts is a human/humane issue. What we’re trying to do is give persons who are willing to try to break free from the ravages of drugs or mental illness, for whatever reason, a chance to do that. And courts have a unique ability in this regard since the alternative to coerced cleanliness is prison…  These courts of coercion—and that’s a word of specific usage—these courts of coercion work. And literally save lives. And greatly reduce recidivism.

The story of Christopher Kennedy Lawford is a story of courage, redemption, assistance from family… friends, and [support groups]. He has removed the 800-pound gorilla from his back but he didn’t do it alone. We hear those same, basic stories of success in our problem-solving courts.

We are blessed to be part of the success that we have experienced, a success of redemption, a success that touches our souls. Thank you for this wonderful award.

TASC President Pamela Rodriguez (left) and Board Chair Jim Durkan (right) present TASC's 2012 Justice Leadership Award to the Honorable Paul P. Biebel, Jr.

TASC President Pamela Rodriguez (left) and Board Chair Jim Durkan (right) present TASC’s 2012 Justice Leadership Award to the Honorable Paul P. Biebel, Jr.

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