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Illinois Mental Health Task Force Action Plan to serve as guide for meeting behavioral health needs


Courts have become default system to address issues impacting an estimated 70% of criminal court participants

By Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis

In October’s Courts Connect, I touched upon the need to focus our collective attention as members of the justice system on mental and behavioral health issues. The Supreme Court has sought to lead that effort though the creation of the Illinois Mental Health Task Force. The Task Force has worked tirelessly this year at developing an Action Plan, which the Court approved last month.

To explain the work of the Task Force and to describe the Action Plan, I would like to introduce Fourth District Appellate Court Justice Kathryn Zenoff and Scott Block, Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.

By Hon. Kathryn E. Zenoff, Justice, Fourth Appellate District of Illinois and Scott A. Block, Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts

Compassion and the rule of law do not need to be mutually exclusive… This philosophy is woven into the priorities of Illinois’ new Chief Justice, Mary Jane Theis, and her colleagues on the Illinois Supreme Court. It is also reflected within the various Supreme Court commissions, committees, and task forces working to meet the diverse challenges faced by so many people served by the criminal justice system.

When looking at challenges not only deserving but demanding to be met with compassion within our criminal courts, it is estimated that 70% of the individuals seen have mental health, substance use, or co-occurring disorders, collectively known as “behavioral health disorders.” This overwhelming reality unwittingly places the courts in a role serving as the default system for addressing the needs of those with behavioral health issues. Meeting the needs of the individuals served within the courts requires a collaborative approach and is essential to ensuring public safety and creating fair and effective criminal justice responses.

Improving the court and the community response to individuals living with behavioral health disorders does not happen overnight. Rather, it happens over time and requires leadership, sustained commitment, cross-systems communication, partnership, and compromise.

The Illinois Supreme Court recently took another significant step along this path at its November 2022 Administrative Term, by approving the Illinois Mental Health Task Force Action Plan.

Throughout 2022, the Illinois Mental Health Task Force worked with the National Center for State Courts to engage court professionals and justice partners around the state of Illinois to share existing strategies and assess opportunities for improvement. In doing so, approximately 800 people including judges and court professionals, representatives from all branches of government and state agencies, and behavioral health and social service providers participated in community assessments and resource mapping workshops.

The information gained through these activities as well as extensive reviews of relevant research, reports, and literature focused on the intersection of the justice and behavioral health, led to the development of the Task Force Action Plan. Moving forward, the Action Plan will serve as a guide for the Illinois courts, communities, agencies, institutions, and organizations as together, we seek to improve the justice system response to individuals living with mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders.

Action Plan has 37 recommendations

The Action Plan embraces the Sequential Intercept Model (SIM), developed by Mark Munetz, MD, and Patricia Griffin, PhD, in conjunction with the SAMHSA’s GAINS Center. The SIM provides a conceptual framework for communities to organize targeted strategies for justice-involved individuals with behavioral health disorders. Within the criminal justice system there are numerous intercepts or opportunities to provide services to individuals to prevent them from further penetrating the criminal justice system.

The SIM has been used as a focal point for states and communities to assess available resources, determine gaps in services, and plan for community change, noting change is best accomplished by a team of stakeholders that crosses over multiple systems, including mental health, substance abuse, law enforcement, pre-trial services, courts, jails, community corrections, housing, health, social services, peers, family members and many others.

Overall, the Action Plan has 37 recommendations, some of which are actions that fall directly within the justice system’s purview, such as embracing nationally promoted efforts of the judiciary to lead and convene stakeholders across systems to address behavioral health needs. As continuously espoused through the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators’ National Task Force to Examine the State Court Response to Mental Illness, “in their unique position as respected leaders, judges are optimal conveners of these diverse stakeholders.”

Improving Fitness to Stand Process

More specifically, one recommendation within the Action Plan prompts judicial leadership and justice partners to apply nationally developed tools and strategies to examine and improve Fitness to Stand Trial processes. Across the nation and in Illinois, the state laws and procedures involving competency to stand trial require attention. Too many defendants are languishing in jail while awaiting a state hospital bed or community restoration. Not only has the competency wait list increased costs, challenged state agencies, and overburdened county jails, but it is also taking a significant toll on the health and well-being of people waiting in county jails.

Other recommendations include the judiciary taking an active role to increase training, awareness, advocacy, cultural awareness, and data collection, all of which require ongoing collaborations and dialogues addressing how courts interact with and partner with behavioral health systems, communities, and individuals.

Foundational achievements

The Illinois Mental Health Task Force looks forward to continuing its work in service to the Illinois Supreme Court and all Illinoisans by furthering building upon the efforts of this past year which included the following:

  • Established a Task Force website.
  • Hosted Regional Resource Mapping Workshops (634 justice professionals and partners attended and contributed).
  • Facilitated a statewide Community Assessment Survey modeled after the Wayne State University, Center for Behavioral Health and Justice SIMPLE (Sequential Intercept Model Practices Leadership, and Expertise) Scorecard to assess county-level behavioral health and justice collaborations. (147 Responses).
  • Awarded $315,000 from a Bureau of Justice Assistance, Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program Grant to implement and support Pilot Programs serving court involved individuals in the Circuit Court of Cook County, 2nd Circuit, 3rd Circuit, 4th Circuit, and 17th Circuit.
  • Partnered with the Supreme Court Judicial College to develop and deliver web-based educational opportunities focusing on Harm Reduction and Evidence-Based Substance Use Disorder Treatment Strategies (220 attendees) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and the Courts (178 attendees) – Recordings are available on the Judicial College LMS.
  • Presented and promoted behavioral health and justice initiatives at various events including the Annual Conference of Chief Justices and State Court Administrators (held in Chicago this past summer), the National Association of Court Managers Annual Conference, the Illinois Association of Behavioral Health Annual Conference, and various local justice and behavioral health coordinating councils.

Join our Web Event on Feb. 2

As the Illinois Supreme Court and Mental Health Task Force move to effectuate the Action Plan, Chief Justice Theis and the Task Force members cordially invite all interested justice and behavioral health partners to SAVE THE DATE and REGISTER to attend a Web Event on Thursday, February 2nd from 12:15-1:00 pm.