Conflict between Ford, Rietz leads to closure of mental health court

Conflict between Ford, Rietz leads to closure of mental health court

URBANA — Champaign County's presiding judge has agreed to pull the plug on mental health court after the judge who presides there said he can no longer work with the state's attorney due to "philosophical" differences in how to deal with defendants.

"I've decided we're going to close it down, clear the decks," Presiding Judge Tom Difanis said Friday, in deference to Judge Jeff Ford, who has administered the court since its inception in January 2011.

"The service providers want to give us information and suggestions. We'll take a look at that and determine how to proceed," Difanis said.

Difanis said the difference between Ford and State's Attorney Julia Rietz boils down to whether clients can be forced to take medication by putting them in jail until they agree to do so.

"Is this an appropriate vehicle for the courts to use? To Julia's credit, she is philosophically and adamantly opposed. Jeffrey says, 'What else am I to do?' I refer to it as a philosophical difference. They both steadfastly believe in their position. This is where we hope the service providers can come up with suggestions," Difanis said.

While the decision affects only seven people out of the hundreds in the county's criminal justice system, it comes at a time when a paid consultant looking at Champaign County's aging jails has put great emphasis on getting appropriate help for mentally ill defendants who commit crimes to keep them out of jail.

"This is something that I don't want somebody to take personally. This is a situation that just isn't working," Ford told The News-Gazette.

Rietz said the decision to discontinue mental health court rests solely with Ford.

"I didn't ask for this. I thought things were going well and we were headed in the right direction," Rietz said.

Ford contends that his approach, using sanctions and rewards to gain compliance, similar to what is used with drug court defendants, is based on "evidence-based practices."

"Doing this for over 22 years, being in hundreds of hours of classroom time with professionals and talking to people with substance abuse and mental health problems, teaching — I'm now the president of the Illinois Association of Problem-Solving Courts and have been on the board of the Illinois Association of Drug Court Professionals since 2000 — I have learned what the philosophy, the science, the theory is, what the research shows, and what the best practices are and I'm trying to put that to use," Ford said.

"Unfortunately, some of that conflicts with the personal philosophy of the state's attorney," said Ford, who said he's been wrestling with how to deal with their ongoing difference of opinion for several weeks.

"I started this. It was my idea. I put it all together and now I've got to kill it. It's not a good feeling," said Ford.

Rietz agreed that she and the judge differ on what might be considered best practices.

"If there is a difference in philosophy, it has to do with whether it is appropriate to incarcerate mentally ill people either as a sanction for not complying with treatment or as a weapon to force them to take medication or go to therapy. I see mental health court as an opportunity to link the mentally ill who commit criminal acts with services, not as a way to use traditional court methods to force them into compliance," Rietz said.

"I hope we can reconstitute it with perhaps another judge. I hope we can re-form with more organization on the front end so we are all on the same page," she said.

"We have no protocol so we have no definition of success, no clear understanding of goals, and in my view, we can't use mental health court as a method to cure people. We should be using it as a way to provide them access to services and move them forward, hopefully with no criminal record, or a lesser record than they might otherwise have had," she said.

Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum, who serves as his office's representative on the mental health court team, preferred to remain neutral about the obvious conflict between Ford and Rietz. "This is not my battle," said Rosenbaum, agreeing that he and Rietz will continue to make sure that the clients currently in mental health court get the services they need.

Rosenbaum noted that about two dozen people have been referred to mental health court since it began. Of that number, only six or seven have been considered helped sufficiently to be terminated from mental health court.

Peter Tracy, executive director of the Champaign County Mental Health Board, said with or without mental health court, those in the treatment arena will continue to work with the sheriff to get help for inmates with identifiable mental issues both while incarcerated and after release.

"I think the main thing is, I want to fix whatever the problem is. We've been very focused on juvenile issues and now that we're aware there are problems on the adult side, we're working to direct the resources we have so they're more effective," said Tracy.

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787 wrote on May 06, 2013 at 9:05 am

Julia Reitz is the best that we can do in this county?


What other things does she think are "going well"...?

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on May 06, 2013 at 9:05 am
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I agree with Ford. 


I can think of many violent criminals who'd pose no danger if they were medicated or locked up. But it's got to be one or the other.


Seung-Hui Cho, James Holmes and Mark David Chapman come immediately to mind.

EL YATIRI wrote on May 06, 2013 at 10:05 am
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What evidence I'd like to ask judge Ford?  That controlled and provided by pharmaceutical companies who are profiting by more and more people being on life-long medications.

These are not highly effective, benign drugs.  They have permanent severe side effects often and their efficacy is questionable at best.

The psychiatrists in academia who publish the articles pushing their use all recieve big money from pharmaceutical companies.

Studies which show no benefit or harm are simply not published.

If someone is so dangerous that he needs to be locked up Rob, they don't qualify for mental health court.  Only nonviolent offenders qualify.  So quick to support forced drug treatment for citizens just like the soviet psychiatric gulag.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on May 07, 2013 at 12:05 pm
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Those three were all non-violent until they pulled the trigger. And each had previous mental health assessments.

sw13 wrote on May 07, 2013 at 9:05 pm

While psychotropic medications do have side effects, not all of them are severe, and not everyone suffers from side effects.  All medications have side effects, but we take these medications regardless to improve from the condition that is causing us to suffer.  There's an abundance of evidence proving that these medications are efficiant, and when you work with individuals who have mental illness, you can tell when they are compliant or not with medications.

I also do not agree with forced medications.  It is someone's choice to take medications unless they are at harm of hurting themselves or others.  However, these individuals are in a program where compliance with medication is a treatment goal.  If they decide not to take their medications, they still committed the crime to put them in mental health court in the first place, and should finish out their sentence; even if that means sanctions.  While these individuals do have a mental illness, they also did break the law.  There are consequences for every action, regardless if you are mentally ill or not.


rsp wrote on May 07, 2013 at 5:05 am

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, is there anyone who is advocating on behalf of the defendants that the treatment choice is the best one? Sometimes there just needs to be a change in meds and unless there is a third party there the treatment provider doesn't want to listen. I would hate to see a good program go if the problem could be fixed. 

lawnerd wrote on May 07, 2013 at 3:05 pm

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.