Some suggested you'd have to have your head examined to start a mental-health court. Maybe they were right.
After a little more than two years in operation, Champaign County's experiment with mental-health court has crashed and burned — the victim of philosophical differences between Circuit Judge Jeff Ford and State's Attorney Julia Rietz.
Champaign County Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis announced last week that he's "going to close it down" because Ford and Rietz have differing opinions about how to handle mentally ill people referred to the program.
Ford has stated he believes the best results can be obtained by using the judiciary's power of coercion to force reluctant individuals to take their medications and attend counseling sessions. Rietz disagrees, asserting that helping people and referring them to assistance programs is OK but that compelling them to participate under threat of being jailed is not.
We don't have an opinion as to who is correct on the moral or legal questions raised here. But, given the history of the mentally ill, it's hard to see how a mental-health court could be effective without using all the tools traditionally available to a judge, including the power of coercion to force compliance with court orders.
Then again, should a judge, even one acting on medical advice, be empowered to enforce medical treatment against an individual's wishes? This is tough stuff — no easy answers here.
Under ideal circumstances, the courts would have little to do with mental-health issues, except as they relate to individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.
But increasingly over the years, our jails and prisons have become second homes for mentally ill people who engage in criminal activity. Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh can cite chapter and verse the problems posed by housing and caring for mentally ill individuals who are arrested.
The vast majority of these people are not legally insane. They have mental-health issues that make it difficult for them to stay out of trouble. Some of their issues can be addressed simply by seeing that they take the proper medication.
But that's harder than it sounds, and it's why the Illinois Supreme Court authorized Illinois' 102 counties to set up a court to see if a more creative approach could stanch the problem. The track record in Champaign County is slight — some two dozen people referred to mental-health court, with less than 10 successfully completing it.
The drug court over which Ford presides has had much greater success. But it's much easier to order a defendant not to drink and to attend alcohol counseling than it is to tell someone not to be mentally ill.
Addressing a medical problem in a legal forum would be problematic under the best of circumstances. Throwing in major differences of opinion between the two major players has, for now at least, escalated the degree of difficulty to impossible.