How Courts Should Respond to Court Users with Serious Mental Illness

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A national judicial task force recently released State Courts Leading Change, a report and recommendations to assist state courts in responding to the needs of court users with serious mental illness.

The recommendations are based on a multi-year study conducted by the National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness. The Task Force was created by the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) in 2020 to support state courts in more effectively responding to the needs of court-involved individuals with serious mental illness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 50 million adults in the U.S. live with mental illness and over 13 million adults live with serious mental illness. The court system can be a “de facto” way of obtaining treatment and services, the report says, as people with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized in the U.S.

Marcia Meis, Director of the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts (AOIC) served on the Task Force Executive Committee and Co-Chaired the Education, Partnership, and Implementation Work Group along with Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush. Illinois Appellate Court Justice Kathryn Zenoff also served as a member of the Work Group.

Promoting systemic changes in state courts

The Task Force laid out comprehensive recommendations and associated resources for state courts, behavioral health and community organizations, and other state and federal agencies.

This includes the establishment of state-level, three-branch, multidisciplinary task forces to promote systemic changes, creating case management best practices, and examining person-centered justice for people with behavioral health needs.

The Task Force recommended that the competency process (including evaluation of competence to stand trial) be reserved for defendants who are charged with serious crimes and that multiple civil court options be available for individuals, families, and behavioral health systems.

There was a significant focus on creating approaches to improve outcomes for children and families with behavioral health needs, like examining the community-based approach Upstream; training judges, courthouse personnel, and justice partners on trauma and trauma-informed responses; and diverting youth with mental health needs from juvenile justice, when appropriate.

The Task Force also highlighted the need to support the well-being of judges and court personnel, noting the high levels of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue experienced by judges and court staff.

A focus on behavioral health in Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court said in a press release that Illinois Courts will build off the National Judicial Task Force’s work with a state-specific action plan that is under development and anticipated to be propagated in early 2023.

The Illinois Supreme Court has been at the forefront of creating best practices to address the needs of court users with mental illness for some time.

“With the wealth of information and resources developed and shared through the National Task Force, along with the expertise of our Illinois Mental Health Task Force and the engagement of many cross-sector justice partners, the Illinois Supreme Court is well-positioned and committed to building upon its previous efforts to enhance court response to individuals living with mental illness,” Meis said.

In 2021, the Court hired Scott Block as the state’s first Statewide Behavioral Health Administrator. Block serves as a mental health resource for the judicial branch and helps lead efforts to further local, state, and national behavioral health and justice initiatives that impact Illinois courts.

Block also serves as project director for the Illinois Mental Health Task Force, an interdisciplinary group of leaders including state government and behavioral health partners focused on identifying opportunities for improvement and implementing mental health priorities in Illinois.

In the first half of 2022, the Mental Health Task Force held multidisciplinary Regional Councils and Resource Mapping Workshops across the state to introduce best practices and enhance relationships among systems, agencies, and community leaders.

In October, the AOIC announced that it awarded $315,000 from a grant to support pilot programs in Illinois using designated liaisons to serve court-involved individuals with mental health and substance use disorders.

The Illinois Mental Health Task Force releases the periodic newsletter “Behavioral Health, the Bench, and Beyond,” which includes updates on events and news from the Task Force and other organizations focused on mental health. To learn more, click here.

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