Persons With Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System–Updated: 7/27/20

Recent Developments

  • In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Governor issued an executive order preventing county jails from transferring persons found unfit to stand trial (UST) or not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) to state psychiatric hospitals for treatment despite court orders for such transfers and the inability of jails to provide appropriate care for these individuals.   As of July 23rd, 2020 more than 90 persons were in county jails awaiting transfer.   The Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health has created a work group which includes several Summit members.
  • Several bills were introduced in the legislature this year to reduce the number of persons with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system or to improve treatment in prisons.  Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislature did not meet for most of its Spring session.  An effort will be made to pass these bills either in the Fall veto sessions in November and December or next year.  These bills include:
    • Senate Bill 1188 would divert unfit midemeanants from the criminal courts.
    • Senate Bill 224 creates a legal standard to apply in hearings to extend the conditional release of persons found not guilty by reason of insanity
    • House Bill 182 would limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons
    • House Bill 5136 increases the mental health training which police officers must receive
    • House Bill 5009 requires local governments to provide appropriate non-law enforcement responses to behavioral health crisis whenever possible.


  • Because we have dramatically reduced the number of public and private psychiatric beds in Illinois without adequately funding our community mental health system, many persons with mental illnesses are in the criminal justice system. For example:
    • There are now more persons with serious mental illnesses in the prisons operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections (7,000) than in all of the public and private psychiatric hospitals in the state combined (4,500).
    • The Cook County Jail in Chicago houses more persons with mental illnesses (2,000)  than all of state hospitals combined (1,200).
  • It is extremely expensive and difficult to treat persons with mental illnesses in prisons and jails.
  • Prisons and jails frequently fail to provide adequate and humane care and services to persons with mental illnesses.
  • The state’s failure to adequately fund community mental health services has placed an unfair burden on counties and cities which must pay for most of the cost of processing persons with mental illnesses through the criminal justice system.
  • There are effective and cost effective mechanism for reducing the number of persons with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system.  They include:
    • Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training which is already being utilized by the Chicago Police Department and some other police departments in Illinois
    • Programs which link persons with mental illnesses leaving prisons and jails to comprehensive community services.  A pilot program operated by Thresholds for persons leaving the Cook County Jail reduced recidivism by more than 65% and won an award from the American Psychiatric Association.
    • Mental Health Court criminal justice diversion programs now in existence in many counties have reduced recidivism dramatically.  In 2007 Illinois enacted legislation specifically authorizing mental health courts.  The following counties now have mental health court programs:  Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Madison, Rock Island, Winnebago, Will and McHenry.  Statistics reflecting the effectiveness and cost savings associated with the Cook County mental health courts are linked below.
    • Illinois recently became the first state to create a state mental health court associate whose goal is to expand and improve mental health courts.
    • In April, 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court appointed a judicial committee to study mental health courts.  Long-time mental health court supporter, Justice Kathy Zenoff was appointed to chair this important committee.
    • Research across the countryhas demonstrated the effectiveness of mental health courts.
  • The federal government has recognized the fact that there are large numbers of persons with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system and has begun to provide funds to states to implement diversion program under the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act .

Summit recommendations

  • The Summit supports the Sequential Intercept Modelfor reducing the number of person with mental illnesses in the the criminal justice system.
  • The Summit supports the creation of alternatives to the use of the police to respond to mental health emergencies–See House Bill 5009.
  • Police officers across the state should be trained in the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model so that they may respond safely and humanely to persons with mental illnesses in crisis in the community.
  • Illinois needs more mental health court criminal diversion projects designed to prevent needless imprisonment of persons with mental illnesses, reduce recidivism and provide appropriate community mental health services to persons with mental illnesses in the community.
  • Dedicated state funding should be given to community mental health providers to serve persons in mental health court programs.
  • Persons with mental illnesses in prisons and jails should be provided with adequate and humane mental health care and services including appropriate medications.
  • Correctional officers in prisons and jails should receive training relating to mental illnesses.
  • In order to facilitate reentry, Medicaid benefits should be suspended rather than terminated upon arrest and incarceration.  Link here to materials on this topic.  The Council of State Governments released a report on this topic in July, 2011 which is linked below.
  • No person with a mental illness should be discharged from a prison or jail without a comprehensive plan for community services which is reasonably calculated to insure continuity of care.

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