Persons With Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System–Updated: 12/9/15

Recent Developments

In November, 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court issued new rules governing mental health courts and other “problem solving courts. Click here to see those rules.


  • Because we have dramatically reduced the number of public and private psychiatric beds in Illinois without adequately funding our community mental health system, a large number of persons with mental illnesses have ended up 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 hospirals combined (1,200). (A recent article on the number of people with mental illnesses in prisons and jails written by Summit member John Fallon is linked below–“The Nation’s Largest Mental Health provider”)
  • 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.
  • In 2010, Cook County entered into a Consent Decree with the US Department of Justice to improve mental health services in the Cook County Jail.  That agreement is linked below.
  • Currently pending against the Illinois Department of Corrections is a class action suit in Federal court alleging that the state is failing to provide minimally adequate mental health services to it’s prisoners.
  • 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 country has 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 Department of Human Services Plan of Correction: A Statewide Plan for Forensic Services which is designed to move persons with mental illnesses who have been found unfit to stand trial (UST) or not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) out of county jails and into state hospitals or community treatment.
  • The Summit supports the Sequential Intercept Model for reducing the number of person with mental illnesses in the the criminal justice system
  • 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 incarcerations.  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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