(Chicago) — The Cook County Mental Health Court celebrated its 10-year anniversary on May 20, graduating three recent participants and lauding the successes of numerous past graduates.
Since its inception in 2004, the specialty court has served 663 people. It is unique in that it is specifically designed to serve felony probationers who have chronic mental health conditions, most of whom also have co-occurring substance dependencies.
The goal of the mental health court is to reduce repeated histories of arrest and incarceration among participants by providing comprehensive clinical services delivered by a coordinated team of partners.
“We’re here for a reason, and it’s not to lock everybody up,” said Judge Paul P. Biebel, Jr., presiding judge of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County. “This is important work, and it touches our souls watching people come back from challenging situations, beating drugs and mental illness. We’re very proud of them, and we congratulate today’s graduates.”
An estimated 20 percent of people entering the Cook County Jail suffer from serious mental illness, often with co-occurring substance use disorders and medical conditions.
Compared to the year before program involvement, the average number of arrests among participants during the first year of the program decreased by 80 percent, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. Additionally, the average number of days spent in jail dropped by 76 percent, resulting in estimated yearly savings to the county of almost $8 million.
Director of Specialty Courts and retired judge Lawrence Fox, along with Judge Biebel and TASC President Pamela Rodriguez, was instrumental in establishing the Cook County Mental Health Court, now operating in seven courtrooms across the county. Judge Fox commended the program for effectively diverting people from jail and saving lives and families.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the room — able to retire as a judge to work on these programs, instead of having to do the difficult work of putting people in prison,” said Judge Fox. “These courts are far and away the model courts for the country. The court system cares about these participants, and there’s no better work you can do than be part of helping people make changes in their lives.”
TASC Vice President of Operations Janelle Prueter spoke on behalf of TASC about how the program has helped hundreds of people involved in the criminal justice system to receive medical treatment and counseling instead of jail.
“Thanks to the judges for their vision and commitment to this work, and for ensuring that people with mental illness can be diverted from the system and get the help they need,” said Prueter. “Thanks to the clients, for the privilege of getting to do work and be of service to them. We honor the transformation they’ve achieved in their lives.”
Kimberly, who graduated from the program in 2009, was among several former clients who gave words of encouragement to the new graduates. With a former graduate and close friend standing at her side, she explained how the judge and TASC never gave up on her even when she seemed to lose all strength.
“I did TASC and was sober for six years,” said Kimberly. “But I didn’t want to face my other problems. I kept remembering TASC, and I called Pam (Ewing, TASC caseworker), and I got into Mental Health Court. And I realized they love me more than I love me. My advice to today’s graduates — when you fall down, never stay stuck.”
The mental health court was created in Cook County in 2004 as a plan for more effective and coordinated programs and services for people with mental illnesses. It focuses on facilitating communications and linking services across criminal justice, mental health and addiction treatment, and community services. Cook County’s program is distinctive because of its emphasis on systemic change, its selection of felony probationers with non-violent offenses as the target population, and its focus on post-adjudication services. It is funded by federal, state, and court grants.