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.