Member Groups

Mental Health Matters
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Mental Health Law Section

December 2017, vol. 4, no. 2

Alternative court aims to keep the mentally ill from repeat criminal acts

“You came here with a felony, which makes life harder. But you got through, and there are many people here today who are proud of you. Now you have the opportunity to get this felony expunged.”

These words of praise and hope—spoken by Judge Clint Hull to one of the 20 mentally-ill criminal defendants in Treatment Alternative Court (TAC) where he presides—are standard fare in a program designed to help defendants reach psychiatric stability, achieve positive behavioral changes and reduce criminal recidivism. On this particular day, Judge Hull was addressing a defendant on his graduation day.

Graduation from TAC marks the defendant’s successful completion of an individualized two-year treatment program that includes frequent court appearances, medication, therapy and skill-building to secure employment. Upon successful completion, the court may dismiss the original charges against the defendant, terminate the sentence, or discharge the defendant from any further proceedings in the original prosecution.1

“It takes money, resources and a belief in the program,” Judge Hull added as he listed the defendant’s accomplishments over the two-year period. “All of us have challenges. We have good and bad days,” said Judge Hull to the graduating defendant. “You worked hard. You faced the challenges. You have a lot to offer.”

The graduate responded with comments such as, “It was hard at first; I was grumpy. Thank you for the feedback. Thank you for uplifting my spirits.” Then, looking over at his treatment team, and with a big smile, he said, “That’s a big team.”

A TAC team is big, indeed. It is comprised of the prosecutor, public defender, case coordinator and probation officer, a mental health representative from the jail, and a psychologist from the Kane County Diagnostic Center. The team also includes a representative from one of the county’s mental health service providers: Association for Individual Development (AID) in southern Kane County; Ecker Center for Mental Health in the north; and Gateway Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center, for those with the added diagnosis of addiction.

Together with Judge Hull, the team coordinates to develop a plan that will bring the litigant psychiatric stability, achieve positive behavioral changes and reduce criminal recidivism.2 “Team meetings become intensive problem-solving meetings,” said Judge Hull, who uses the team’s assessments to determine what rewards, consequences, incentives or sanctions to dispense from the bench. These may include fines, costs, restitution, jail time, therapy, medication, educational or vocational counseling, and close court monitoring.3

TAC Court started in Kane County in February 2006, when there were only two other mental health courts in Illinois and no governing statute. Justice Donald Hudson, chief judge at the time, decided to utilize an available federal grant to bring this innovative concept in procedural justice to the 16th Judicial Circuit. The responsibility to establish TAC and preside over it was given to Judge Tim Sheldon (now retired), who utilized a federal grant to start up the program for 10 mentally ill criminal defendants facing nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.4

In 2008 the Illinois General Assembly codified the use of mental health courts with the Mental Health Court Treatment Act.5 In doing so, the legislature recognized “that a large percentage of criminal defendants have a diagnosable mental illness and that mental illnesses have a dramatic effect on the criminal justice system in the State of Illinois.”6 The Act focuses on persons with mental illnesses, and those with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse problems.7 It set out to meet the critical need for a program that would reduce the number of such persons in the criminal justice system, reduce recidivism among them, provide appropriate treatment to them and reduce the incidence of crimes committed by them.8

The Act did not require judicial circuits to establish a mental health court program, but simply authorized the chief judges of each judicial circuit to do so; and if choosing to do so, to follow the operating format articulated in the Act.9 Today, 23 counties in Illinois have mental health courts. Cook County has six such courts.10

“Participants wind up in the program by pleading guilty to a felony and being placed on two years’ probation,” explained Judge Hull. “They must be approved by the state’s attorney’s office, found to have a mental illness by the county diagnostic center, and connected with a treatment provider that can meet their needs.”

As stated in the Act, the felonies must be nonviolent and probationable.11 That rules out anyone convicted of first or second degree murder, and most categories of criminal sexual assault, arson, kidnapping and stalking.12 It also rules out any offense involving the discharge of a firearm.13

Although the Act allows a defendant with a misdemeanor to participate in TAC Court, there are no such defendants currently in Kane County’s TAC Court. “We focus on high risk-high need individuals,” explained Judge Hull. That means focusing on those litigants who are at the highest risk of re-offending and at the highest need of treatment. “We look for nonviolent offenders who do not have the resources to address and manage their mental illness,” says Judge Hull. “We look for litigants who could benefit from learning to manage their mental conditions, stabilize their lives, and avoid criminal behavior.’

According to Kane County TAC Coordinator, Lindsay Liddicoatt, the current make-up of TAC defendants in the 16th Judicial Circuit include those who have plead guilty to retail theft, residential burglary, drug possession, resisting an officer, and aggravated battery to a police officer, nurse or EMT. Their mental illnesses include bi-polar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major clinical depression.

Judge Hull explained that TAC Court looks for cases in which the offender’s unmanaged mental illness is a major contributing factor in a nonviolent crime—even if the person doesn’t know it. To find such cases, any number of individuals within the justice system may initiate the process. Therefore, a recommendation can come from a probation officer, mental health officer in the jail, a judge, a treatment provider or the public defender. The recommendation triggers a multi-step application process that begins with a screening by the State’s Attorney’s Officer and a voluntary acceptance by the litigant. Before the process goes any further, Liddicoatt reviews all relevant documents and meets with the litigant to evaluate whether he or she is willing to follow all the rules of TAC and cooperate with the treatment team. If Liddicoatt gives the green light, the application is sent to the Kane County Diagnostic Center where a full diagnostic assessment is made. It is the responsibility of the Diagnostic Center to determine whether or not the litigant has a treatable mental illness. “TAC is not intended for litigants with personality disorders,” explained Liddicoatt. “The best candidate is someone with a persistent, chronic, and treatable mental illness.”

Once these criteria are met, the litigant meets with a team of service providers at one of the treatment facilities available in Kane County: either Ecker Center, AID, or Gateway. The team assesses whether the treatment facility has the resources to address the particular issues facing the litigant. In turn, the litigant learns just what will be required to successfully graduate from the program.

After each of these steps is completed, all the information is brought to TAC where Judge Hull decides whether to grant the motion to enter the program. At this point, the litigant must plead guilty.

Liddicoat explained that it is often the requirement of a guilty plea that keeps litigants from immediately embracing the TAC option. “They fight it, at first,” she said. “But once they go through the application process and have so many professionals helping them, they begin to understand.” Part of what they come to understand—and appreciate—is that successful completion of the TAC program frees them of a felony conviction. Rather than going through life with a felony on their record, they can start fresh.

Now with more than a decade of statistics available since the inception of TAC in the 16th Judicial Circuit, Kane County has contracted with Aurora University to conduct a full analysis of the impact of TAC. Pursuant to the Mental Health Treatment Act, the county’s study will include an analysis of recidivism rates.14

But for many who work within the judicial system among mentally ill defendants, a formal study is not necessary to convince them of the efficacy of TAC. They have had more than a decade of TAC graduates to reflect upon, and they have seen concrete results. Seth Shenberg, a mental health clinician at the Kane County jail, provides anecdotal evidence in favor of TAC as he recalls the many mentally ill defendants who would circle in and out of jail—numerous times, maybe 10 or 15 times over the span of many years before TAC was an option—until they got into TAC. After these repeat offenders graduated from TAC, Shenberg said, he never saw them again.


1. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/35(b).

2. “Mentally Ill Defendants Benefit from Kane County Treatment Alternative Court” information sheet, 2017.

3. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/25.

4. Kate Thayer, A different kind of treatment, Kane County Chronicle, May 18, 2008, at 3A.

5. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/.

6. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/5.

7. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/5.

8. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/5.

9. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/15.

10. Illinois Mental Health Courts, available at http://www.ilcoe.us/problem-solving-courts/illinois-mental-health-courts/.

11. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/20(b)(1) and (3).

12. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/20(b)(3).

13. Id.

14. 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 168/40.

 

Judith Miller is the legal services director at Administer Justice, a non-profit civil legal aid clinic located in Kane and DuPage counties. She currently serves as the chair of the KCBA Access to Legal Services Committee. Judith earned her juris doctorate in 2008 from Northern Illinois University College of Law. She is licensed to practice in the state of Illinois, the U.S. Tax Court, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. For more information about Administer Justice, visit www.administerjustice.org.