By Chief Justice Anne M. Burke and Special Guest Columnist Scott A. Block
Fall is upon us with its cooler weather and brilliant displays of color. Though we are still wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and its variants, the danger has largely abated due to the widespread availability of vaccines. Signs that we are returning to some semblance of “normal” are everywhere – “rush hour” is back due to the return of workers to their offices, restaurants and entertainment venues are reopening, and we are seeing the hustle and bustle of people on the streets of downtown.
For the court system, however, there will be no return to pre-Covid “normal.” Changes that were instituted due to Covid will forever alter the manner in which we deliver justice. For example, in many instances, Zoom and other platforms and electronic means of communication have taken the place of in-person gatherings. Court hearings, and even some court proceedings and trials, have successfully taken place using virtual technology. Having the ability to hold hearings remotely has benefitted the bench, the bar, and all court users.
Changes we have made to our court system in response to Covid have also prepared us to meet the new challenges that we will face as a result of the enactment of the Judicial Districts Act of 2021, which Governor Pritzker signed into law on June 4, 2021. The Act creates significant logistical challenges for the courts. Consequently, the Supreme Court entered an order on June 7, 2021, pausing the new legislation from going into effect, thereby giving the courts time to prepare to implement the new boundaries.
Once the pause order is lifted, the Act will dramatically change the boundaries of the four judicial districts outside Cook County. Under the Act, the 5th Judicial District will stretch from Cairo to Champaign - a distance of close to 250 miles; the 4th Judicial District will extend from Jerseyville to Rockford - an even further distance of over 275 miles; and one-third (8) of our 24 judicial circuits will move into a new appellate district.
Clearly, the use of remote platforms will decrease the need for both attorneys and litigants to travel great distances to attend simple hearings, status calls, etc. In turn, it will allow our courts to operate more efficiently and permit members of the bar to provide their services more cost effectively.
Now, allow me to introduce my guest columnist, Scott A. Block. Earlier this month the Supreme Court named Scott as the State’s first ever Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator. He will be telling you more about this newly-developed role and the part he will play, providing professional guidance on dealing with behavioral health issues as they intersect with the justice system.
Notably, Scott holds several credentials in the behavioral health and justice field, including a certification from the National Center for State Courts as a Court Manager and a certification from the Illinois Certification Board as a Criminal Justice Addictions Professional.
It is with great pleasure that I present to you Scott Block.
Guest Columnist Scott A. Block
One need not search very intensely to find an extensive amount of research to support the notion that there is an overrepresentation of people with serious mental illness (SMI) and substance use disorder (SUD) involved with the criminal justice system. Commonly cited statistics indicate that approximately 20% of inmates in jails and 15% of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness and nearly 68% of all incarcerated persons have a diagnosable substance use disorder.
In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), together with the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ)/Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness, issued a Joint Statement of Commitment, noting:
“Because the justice system plays such a major role in responding to SMI and SUD, the state courts of our nation play a vital role in leading change. State courts are most often the primary referral source for treatment, as individuals suffering from SMI or SUD get swept into the justice system. State courts are on the frontlines of the crisis.”
To facilitate change in Illinois, the Illinois Supreme Court approved a position in the Administrative Offices of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) Executive Division titled Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator, in which I have the distinct privilege and honor of filling the inaugural role. Before providing a brief overview of the role and my professional background, I’d like to seize this opportunity to thank Chief Justice Burke and her colleagues on the Supreme Court, as well as AOIC Director Meis, for their leadership and vision in creating this new role. Through support of this position, the Illinois Supreme Court demonstrates its commitment to leading change and remaining at the forefront of the behavioral health best practices, as several state courts across the country seek to develop similar positions within their respective Administrative Offices.
As Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator, I will fulfil the court’s vision by serving as the Judicial Branch’s dedicated voice and resource, committed to furthering local, state, and national behavioral health and justice initiatives that affect the courts. I have hit the ground running as project manager for the Illinois Supreme Court Task Force on Improving the Court and Community Response to Mental Health and Co-Occurring Disorders. The Task Force consists of interdisciplinary court stakeholders from throughout Illinois, who are leading the change to lessen the likelihood of persons with behavioral health disorders recycling through the criminal justice system. The Task Force’s next steps are underway and include the development of five regional, judicially-led committees charged with facilitating cross-system collaboration to identify resources and data sources, improve early identification of people with behavioral health disorders encountering the courts, and increase effective service linkage resulting in diversion opportunities.
To provide access to information regarding Task Force activities, we are currently working with the AOIC-JMIS team to create a website page which projects to “go live” in November 2021.
Internally, I’ve been off to a fast start, interfacing with multiple AOIC Divisions and collaborating on projects such as the Human Resources Division’s One Mind at Work Campaign which seeks to examine and implement best practices for workplace well-being and mental health; the Access to Justice Division’s developing Disability Access Committee, exploring behavioral health curriculum options with the Judicial College; and assisting the emerging Office of Statewide Pretrial Services through enhancing relationships with treatment providers.
I appreciate the warm reception I have received and express my thanks to all whom I have had the pleasure of working with thus far. For those whom I have not yet had the opportunity to meet, I look forward to our crossing of paths.
Finally, although new to the AOIC, I am no stranger to the courts. Prior to joining the AOIC, I was Executive Director of the McHenry County Mental Health Board, where I was responsible for strengthening the community through identifying, coordinating, and contracting for mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services. In that capacity, my work included fostering strong working relationships with the courts, public and private sector partners, legislators, and government institutions, while holding numerous roles within local and statewide associations, boards, and coalitions.
Prior to that, I was first introduced to a profession within the courts when I joined the Twenty-Second Judicial Circuit Court’s team as the Director of the Office of Special Projects, where I provided oversight of the court’s forensic evaluations contract and led daily Problem-Solving Court operations.
Throughout my career I have been presented with opportunities to improve lives and I look forward to continuing that work through the role of Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator.