Sending mental health court participants to jail is wrong philosophy
By J. Steven Beckett
I read with interest Mary's Schenk's article about mental health court. I was embarrassed to read that a court in our county would attempt to create another reason to put people in jail.
Once before I was embarrassed by the Champaign County court system and a local judge's practices, when in 2004, the Illinois Supreme Court in City of Urbana v. Andrew N.B chastised our court system for creating "a parallel juvenile justice system" in Champaign County. The Supreme Court noted that juveniles would be put on supervision for city ordinance violations and then put in jail if they did not pay their ordered fines or do ordered community service. Under the Juvenile Court Act, however, minors could not be put in jail for ordinance cases. The Supreme Court concluded that in Champaign County: "It defies reason that municipal ordinance code violations prosecuted outside the [Juvenile Court] Act which themselves are not punishable by imprisonment become punishable by imprisonment simply because the trial court ordered minors to abide by conditions unrelated to the initial violations. We hold that, in the absence of a statute allowing such a procedure, contempt may not be used as punishment for minors who violate orders of supervision entered on municipal ordinance violations which themselves do not permit imprisonment. (citation to cases omitted)"
By his own system the judge had put minors in jail as a "incentive" and kept them out as a "reward." The Illinois Supreme Court rightfully (in my view) criticized Champaign County for that philosophy that ignored the juvenile law. Attempting to do the same thing with people with mental illness is a judicial atrocity. The mental health code requires proof by clear and convincing evidence that a person is a threat to himself or others to deprive him of his freedom. Now the same judge wants to use a bond condition as an "incentive" for someone with a mental illness — the judge thinks it is a good way to control these citizens' need for medication by putting them in jail for not taking their prescription drugs.
This notion of "send the mentally ill to jail" speaks volumes about a different sort of judicial philosophy — this diversion program seems to be more about the judge, as opposed to the people it is intended to serve. What the Mental Health Court needs is a different judge, not to be shut down.
J. Steven Beckett is a former member of the Champaign County Board and director of trial advocacy at the University of Illinois College of Law.