By Hon. Jesse G. Reyes

The mental health crisis in our state is mostly hidden from view in our swollen prison population and in neighborhoods where those with mental health conditions live imperiled lives without adequate community resources to serve them.

Every now and then the crisis explodes into public view when police are called to arrest an individual with mental health issues who is mistaken for a dangerous criminal leading to a confrontation and tragic results.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the vast majority of those with mental health conditions are not violent criminals.  We know that most people in jails have not yet been convicted of a crime. Because of inadequate funding, individuals with mental health conditions do not receive the treatment they need.  Following a lawsuit (Lippert v. Baldwin) by the ACLU over inadequate medical care for prisoners, court-appointed researchers reported that Illinois has the second-worst problem of overcrowding after Alabama, but ranks in the lower 20 percent of states for health care expenditures and is second lowest in full-time medical staff.

A hostile prison environment where those with mental health conditions are at risk of victimization often makes their condition worse.  A criminal record makes it harder for these individuals to get a job or housing once they are released. Arresting and imprisoning people who should be receiving mental health support leads to dangerously overcrowded jails.  At least a third of the Cook County jail population is dealing with serious mental health issues.

I believe that the Illinois Supreme Court should take a leadership role and confront this issue by convening a conference that would include health professionals, social workers, law enforcement professionals, and legal experts to make recommendations on alternatives to jailing nonviolent individuals with mental health conditions.  One alternative could be to support local community resources, which could provide mental health treatment as well as family counseling.

Police training should include how to recognize and deal effectively with those living with mental illness. Options need to be created for individuals who come to the attention of law enforcement to divert them to treatment and services both before and after their arrest.  NAMI affiliates across the country could partner with local law enforcement teams to encourage those with mental illness to obtain treatment and work on a variety of jail diversion programs and re-entry programs.

But adequate resources will be necessary to fund the community support systems for those living with mental illness. Governor Pritzker’s proposed $40 million budget increase for mental health and addiction programs will help.  Non-profit organizations can also provide funding such as the McArthur Foundation, which has funded programs to reduce the use of prisons for incarcerating those with mental health conditions.

It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit and a court settlement reached just last year to address this issue of adequate medical care in our prison system, but we now have an opportunity to deal with this crisis and give hope to those who live with mental health conditions.