Shortly after receiving national attention in a “60 Minutes” episode that aired on May 21, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart urged a group of Kane County judicial leaders, lawyers, journalists, law-enforcers and mental health professionals Wednesday to seek new approaches to handling the growing number of inmates with mental illness.
“I just don’t want us to look back 20 years from now and say we saw this train wreck right in front of us, and we walked away from it,” Dart said.
Dart and others have pointed at the problems of mental illness and recidivism for a number of years, and statistics were reiterated Wednesday at Eagle Brook Country Club in Geneva, where the Kane County Bar Association hosted a seminar titled, “Mental Illness and Its Path Through the Criminal Justice System: Challenges and Solutions.”
Dr. Alexandra Tsang of the Kane County Diagnostic Center in Geneva said statistics from the Department of Justice show that as much as 56 percent of state prison inmates suffer from some sort of mental illness, the most common being anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.
Locally, Tsang said, about 30 percent of jail inmates at the Kane County Jail are on psychotropic medication.
“And these are the 30 percent willing to take medication,” she said. “I think that number can be bumped up by 10 percent.”
The problem, of course, is that convicted criminals with mental illness stay in jail longer, cost more to care for and often cause behavior-management problems. Tsang said the stress of incarceration often worsens the symptoms of mental illness, leading to disciplinary problems and recidivism.
“Mental inmates are ‘frequent flyers,’ ” Tsang said.
In the “60 Minutes” segment and on Wednesday in Kane County, Dart said the Cook County Jail population of about 7,500, has become a dumping ground for the poor and mentally ill. Cook County has implemented a mental health program for some inmates that is now a model for other U.S. jails and includes medication, doctor’s visits and group therapy.
Some of Dart’s methods are controversial, including providing cooking, chess and photography classes — approaches that have triggered some critics to say he’s too soft, according to the “60 Minutes” story.
“What Sheriff Dart can’t tell us yet is whether recidivism rates are coming down,” “60 Minutes” broadcast journalistsaid.
Other speakers on Wednesday included Kane County Sheriff Don Kramer, Judge Clint Hull, Joanne Furnas of the Aurora-based Association for Individual Development and Kane County Public Defender Kelli M. Childress. Moderators were Colleen Boraca of the NIU College of Law Health Advisory Clinic and Inez Toledo, a Legal Advocacy Service Staff attorney for the the Illinois Guardianship & Advocacy Commission.
Additional information about KCBA seminars and events is available on the Kane County Bar Association website.