Why Our Criminal Justice System Discussions Must Include Mental Health

Our Justice System Can't Cope with Mental Illness

Do people with mental illnesses belong in jail? While most of the time the crimes they are accused of are petty ones, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) estimates that 16 percent of 48,000 individuals in the total DOC population have a mental health disorder.

Unfortunately, jail only makes their conditions worse, since at least 83% of jailed inmates with a mental illness don’t receive the treatment they need and wind up staying longer than prisoners without mental illness.

Even after they get out of jail, a criminal record makes it harder for the mentally ill to get a job, housing, or have access to needed healthcare and benefits. Many wind up homeless or in emergency rooms and often face future arrests.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The mentally ill often end up in jail because of small decisions made by different local officials. For example, the police can choose to take a mentally ill person home, to the hospital, or to a shelter instead of to jail. Prosecutors can choose whether or not to not bring charges. Judges can choose to set higher or lower bail amounts so poorer defendants can avoid pre-trial detention and keep their jobs and housing.  And good attorneys can recognize when people are mentally ill and fight in their defense.

The experienced and seasoned Illinois criminal law attorneys at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd., understand the seriousness of the situation and offer aggressive representation for mentally ill clients facing criminal charges. We know the courts and the criminal justice system, and how to plea bargain, negotiate guidelines and recognize when to take a case to trial. When we take on a criminal case, we look at all viable defense options.  We have been successful helping other people with mental illness and will do everything possible to vigorously fight for you or your loved one.

We offer a free initial consultation.  If you have been accused of any criminal charges, get help today by calling 630-305-0222.

What Is Being Done?

Most often, people with mental illness are jailed for minor offenses, such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace or illicit drug use.  Often these are “crimes of survival,” such as retail theft of food or supplies, or breaking and entering to find a place to sleep.

Society is beginning to recognize that jailing such individuals creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections, and state and local budgets, without protecting public safety. It makes more sense to help provide treatment for those with mental illness instead of criminalizing them.

Here are some positive steps that should be or are being taken:

1) Education

Change must start by educating those in the criminal justice system to recognize and deal with the mentally ill. Students training for criminal justice careers in the U.S. should be given training on how to deal with the mental illness of justice-involved populations.

However, according to a study published by the Journal of Criminal Justice Education and posted online on December 30, 2016, most criminal justice degree-granting institutions in the U.S. don’t even offer undergraduate coursework on mental illness.  The study found that “only 40 institutions (roughly 6.25 percent) offer an elective course on mental illness to their criminal justice students,” but this course was not required.

Fortunately, in Cook County, Sheriff Tom Dart instituted a program in 2006 where all incoming staff, including the 300 to 400 new correctional officers hired annually, receives 60 hours of advanced mental-illness treatment training.

2) Screening Programs

Cook County has added a mental-health screening for people arrested and taken to the county jail for processing and a bond hearing, Arrested individuals are interviewed in order to find alternatives to deal with the mentally ill that can be suggested to the judge.

3) Resources and Treatment

According to one report, the number of state psychiatric beds in the nation fell from a high of about 550,000 in 1960 to barely 40,000 in 2014. Today, the preferred strategy is to treat mentally ill patients in their own communities and provide resources and treatment that will keep them from coming into conflict with police.

The NAMI believes that support should include treatment for drug and alcohol use, as well as supports like housing, education, employment and peer and family support. Communities should create options to divert the mentally ill to treatment and services—before arrest, after arrest and at all points in the justice system. If in jail, these individuals should have access to needed medication and support, should be signed up for health coverage if possible and should get help planning their release to ensure they get back on track.

Cook County has found success by using a combination of “supportive” housing (which includes rent subsidies and mental health treatment services), and teams composed of mental health specialists who coordinate treatment and housing and employment support. The strategy has produced an 89 percent reduction in arrests of people with mental illness, and an 86 percent reduction in jail time and 76 percent drop in hospitalizations among participants.

Put Your Trust In Us — Contact Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. for a Free Consultation

If you or a loved one is charged with a crime and has a mental illness, it is essential to retain the services of an experienced defense attorney. The seasoned and compassionate Illinois criminal defense attorneys at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. know the courts and the system and can often help mentally ill individuals get a dismissal or a lesser offense or penalty.

We are aggressive litigators and will work with you to fully understand the facts surrounding your case and find alternatives to jail.  We represent clients in DuPage County, Naperville, Aurora, Wheaton, Downers Grove and Bolingbrook, and the greater Chicagoland area.

Delaying can only make your situation worse, so call 630-305-0222 today to schedule your free initial consultation.

Attorney Marc Wolfe

Marc Wolfe has been representing clients in criminal matters in Chicago and the entire State of Illinois for over 30 years. Mr. Wolfe has tried over 300 cases to verdict and represents clients facing investigation or prosecution for a broad range of state and federal criminal offenses, including murder, embezzlement, sexual abuse, drugs, marijuana and white collar crimes. [ Attorney Bio ]