(This is the fifth of 10 posts. Each is a chapter from the Building a Safe Community project I did for the county.)
The Winnebago County-17th Judicial Circuit Court partnership parallels the national trends and makes it a leader in shifting to nationally recognized best practices.
Since the mid-1990s, the Winnebago County criminal justice system has been transforming itself from a traditional “arrest, sentence, jail, release, repeat” model into an integrated system of community policing, aggressive prosecution and defense, specialty courts, alternative programs and evidence-based analysis.
The two most successful and most fully developed programs are the specialty courts and the alternative-to-incarceration models, which include the Resource Intervention Center and the jail-based programs.
Though less developed than the circuit court and alternative programs, the third component of the best practices shifts is the State’s Attorney’s diversion program and the expected roll-out of the deferred prosecution model.
The specialty courts: The 17th Judicial Circuit Court in Winnebago County began its transformation under the late- and then-Chief Judge Harris Agnew, who developed and implemented an alternative dispute resolution system that has become a national model for civil court cases. Two subsequent chief judges have championed specialty courts: Kathryn Zenoff, now a justice on the Illinois Appellate Court; and Janet Holmgren, who stepped down as chief judge at the end of 2011.
The Illinois Supreme Court in 2010 named Zenoff chair of the Supreme Court Committee on Mental Health and Justice Planning. Since April 2008, she has been co-chair of the National Judges’ Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative.
Holmgren will remain on the circuit court bench as Presiding Judge of the Juvenile and Specialty Courts Division. Circuit Judge Joe McGraw will remain the Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division and was elected Chief Judge, effective Jan. 1, 2012. McGraw has indicated his interest in continuing the specialty courts and alternative-to-incarceration programs.
Holmgren, long an advocate for problem-solving courts, has been instrumental in creating model courtrooms and programs in the 17th circuit. These courts provide specialized adjudication, services sentences and support with an emphasis on “wrap around” programs.
Such programs recognize that few offenders enter the criminal justice system with a single set of problems. Mental health issues are often coupled with substance abuse, and both are coupled with criminal lifestyles that can include domestic violence. Specialty courts identify the greatest need, then wrap around services from other areas, to support the offender as he or she moves through the system.
The history and context of Winnebago County’s specialty courts: The 17th Judicial Circuit Court’s two most visible problem-solving courts are its “drug court” and its “mental health court,” also known as the Therapeutic Intervention Program or TIP court.
Both are built on nationally recognized models.
In 1996, the 17th Circuit Court established its “drug court,” designed to provide wrap-around treatment for non-violent felony offenders with substance abuse problems. Funded in part with a federal grant, drug court successfully graduated 424 individuals between 2005 and 2010.
In 2005, the 17th Circuit Court established the “mental health court.” Known officially as the Therapeutic Intervention Program or TIP court, it saved 25,389 jail days and 19,638 hospital days between 2005 and 2010. Sixty-four participants have successfully completed the program.
The drug court model: In the early 1980s, as illegal drugs made their ways to Main Street USA, court systems struggled with increasing caseloads that were a complicated mix of public safety issues and human lifestyle destruction. Criminal justice experts recognized early-on that incarceration alone would have minimal success in treating the underlying causes and effects of substance abuse.’
The first drug court, established in 1989 in Dade County, Florida, became the national model. Drug courts mandate drug treatment programs in lieu of automatic jail time. Successful completion of the programs can result in dropped charges and/or reduced sentences.
Rutgers University’s Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research describes drug courts this way:
“… the model involves judicially-supervised, structured drug treatment in community-based programs, sanctions and incentives to manage participant compliance, case management, regular status hearings, and a non-adversarial team approach focusing on addressing the effects of drug abuse on criminal behavior.”
Rutgers’ studies document that research over the past two decades “indicate that (drug courts) provide intensive supervision and relatively long-term treatment, reduce drug use and criminal behavior during (drug court) participation, and reduce post-program recidivism in the short term.”
It is the combination of oversight, wrap-around case management, treatment and follow-up that makes drug courts effective, and Winnebago County’s Drug Court has been consistently successful since its inception in 1996.
The 17th Judicial Circuit Court partners with community agencies, such as TASC, Rosecrance and Remedies, to provide treatment and therapeutic services to the Drug Court participants. Currently, Drug Court is limited to Winnebago County, but as the Presiding Judge of Juvenile and Specialty Courts, Holmgren is collaborating with Boone County officials to develop a circuit-wide drug court that will include Boone County participants.
The mental health court model: Modeled after the statistically successful drug courts, mental health courts are a relatively new addition to the criminal justice specialty court system. While similar in the wraparound services/intensive-monitoring model of drug courts, mental health courts focus on the link between the symptoms of a defendant’s serious mental illness and his or her criminal behavior.
Where such a link exists, the effective management of the defendant’s mental illness, including access to psychiatric care and appropriate medications, meeting basic needs such as housing, medical and dental care, education and employment gaps, and access to therapeutic interventions coupled with intensive court supervision and accountability has proven to dramatically reduce the recidivism rates of mental health court participants in Winnebago County.
Established in 2005, Winnebago County’s mental health court is known as the TIP court, shorthand for the Therapeutic Intervention Program. Since its inception, there have been 1,218 referrals to the TIP Court and 168 participants accepted. Sixty-four clients have successfully completed all levels of program requirements and have graduated from the program.
The comprehensive team of criminal justice professionals and clinical therapists from Rosecrance/Ware who comprise the TIP Court team make the mental health court in Winnebago County the “gold standard” for mental health courts nationally.
Though experts recognize that additional research is necessary, preliminary studies analyzed by Rutgers support the outcomes and experience in Winnebago County and indicate that mental health court clients (as contrasted with mental health clients in regular courts) spent fewer days in jail; had fewer bookings/re-arrests; had a longer delay before being charged with new crimes; and were less likely to face new criminal charges.
Since 2007, the 17th circuit has opened:
Family Drug Court: Opened in December 2009, Family Drug Court provides wrap-around services for offenders and their families. Twenty-nine families were referred to Family Drug Court in 2010 with an average of 12 families participating at one time.
Domestic Violence Court: Designed to identify, intervene, assess and educate those with recurring domestic violence arrests, Domestic Violence Court recognizes that domestic violence often combines physical violence with substance abuse, mental health problems, anger management challenges and unemployment. The court ensures offenders are referred to appropriate support networks.
Veterans Court: In 2011, in recognition of the emerging need for a criminal justice system response to veterans in the system, the partnership worked with Veteran’s Administration representatives and veteran’s advocates to create a Veterans Court.
The new court is designed to address and then eliminate the increasingly difficult challenges of providing services to veterans caught in the criminal justice system who are wrestling with substance abuse and mental health issues related to their military service.
In April 2012, Holmgren will begin the Youth Recovery Court, which will provide wrap-around services for juveniles in delinquency court with mental health issues.
The 17th Circuit Court has received a $250,000 grant to create the Youth Recovery Court, which is modeled after the adult TIP Court. The new court is focused on helping youth in delinquency court deal effectively with their mental health and/or substance abuse issues in order to prevent them from penetrating deeper into the juvenile justice system and to avoid involvement in the adult criminal justice system altogether.
Also in 2012, the 17th circuit will continue working with Winnebago County and a statewide multidisciplinary advisory group to establish the Illinois Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health and Justice at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford.
The center of excellence is a federally funded resource center for technical assistance, evidence–based and promising practices information, practices and research and training resources for jurisdictions in Illinois interested in creating or enhancing specialty courts and diversion and deferral programs as alternatives to incarceration.
Alternative-to-incarceration: The implementation over the past seven years of alternative-to-incarceration programs, overseen by the 17th Judicial Circuit Court and supervised by the Office of Court Services (probation department), resulted in two exceptionally successful models: the in-jail program and the Resource Intervention Center.
Both programs use nationally regarded risk assessment tools and evidence-based outcome models for moderate- to high-risk offenders.
The Resource Intervention Center is the centerpiece of Winnebago County’s and the 17th Circuit Court’s alternative-to-incarceration programs. It is the only one-stop rehabilitation center in Illinois. The RIC approach reduced the number of days offenders spent in jail by 84 days per person and is estimated to have saved the county $8.5 million in incarceration costs in three years.
The Office of the State’s Attorney – diversion and deferred prosecution: During his first three years as State’s Attorney, Joe Bruscato tightened the reins on his staff and office practices, demanding higher bonds, stiffer charges and maximum sentences, fewer plea bargains and less probation. He and his first assistant prosecutor Marilyn Hite-Ross monitor direct and approve case management for virtually all offenders following arrest. It is an approach that can provide consistency in charges, pre-trial agreements, dispositions and sentencing. It may also slow the processing of cases, which may lead to case backlog.
At the same time as Bruscato is escalating the more traditional “get tough on crime” approaches of an earlier era, he has begun to outline and implement a “deferred prosecution” system, modeled after a successful Kane County program.
Deferred sentencing models allow non-violent and low risk offenders to participate in alternative-to-incarceration and rehabilitation programs prior to sentencing. If successful, the offender is not sentenced and will not have a criminal record on the original charges.
Bruscato uses diversion programs, like the “bad check” program that diverts offenders after they have been found guilty to rehabilitation and alternative-to-incarceration programs outside jail.
The diversion programs also include the retail theft (shoplifting) division for 18-25-year-old, first-time offenders, and a “drug school” division for first-time offenders.
Bruscato would like to add a diversion program for first time offenders involved in minor drinking incidents, prostitution or solicitation.
Such programs are considered among the best practices to ensure the right offenders remain incarcerated– and that the offenders with little risk of reoffending get the intervention, rehabilitation and support they need.
Failure in perception, not failure in fact: The transformation throughout the system is painfully slow, resulting in a pervasive perception that Winnebago County’s criminal justice system is irreparably broken.
Those who believe the system is broken point to crimes committed by those on probation; to stunning increases in jail population, to a sluggish court system and to the county’s rankings on various “top 10-style” lists of high crime locations.
The facts point to a different reality in Winnebago County. Overall crime is down, recidivism is down and jail capacity is about what was projected when the jail was opened in 2007.
Indeed, the increased jail population – from about 400 per day prior to 2007 to just under 1000 per day now – is more a result of successful and aggressive policing practices than it is a result of increased crime on local streets.
Though not without controversy and conflict, the continuing transformation – especially through its alternative programs and specialty courts – has placed Winnebago County’s criminal justice system and 17th Circuit Court among the more innovative in the country – and significantly more innovative than others in Illinois.
However, the complicated interplay of what falls under the umbrella of “bad news” and the temptation to substitute sound bites for evidenced-based programs, collaboration and patience overshadow the successes in Winnebago County’s criminal justice system.
There are those in the Winnebago County law enforcement, criminal justice, and political and decision-making communities who espouse the old ways of doing business because they sincerely believe in them, because they prefer the rhetoric of get-tough sound bites, or because they know little about or distrust the evidence-based alternatives to incarceration.
What will it take to make us safe? Creating both the perception of and reality of a safe community demands collaboration among at least six disparate groups: the courts, law enforcement, prosecution and defense, alternative-to-incarceration programs and community decision makers, including the County Board.
It requires reallocation of resources – and likely additional resources, unpopular and difficult though that would be. It requires time. There are no quick fix, sound-bite solutions.
It requires less finger pointing and fewer headline-seeking provocations. But, there are solutions and Winnebago County is farther toward reaching them than its counterparts throughout the state.
Hours of interviews show clearly the dissonance that undermines Winnebago County’s criminal justice system. There was no shortage of carping, complaining, excusing and blaming.
Those same interviews are equally clear on this critical point: Developing the required multi-faceted, multi-discipline approaches that reduce the rate at which offenders return to jail is a shared goal in Winnebago County – despite headline-making conflicts.
And, there are qualified, experienced professionals throughout the system who know what to do, are doing it well and stand ready to do more.
1. The report: How it came about and what I did
2. Executive summary: My ten conclusions and observations from the report
3. An overview: Among the dissonance, agreement
4. The past 40 years: Changes on the national level
5. Winnebago County criminal justice system: From command-and-control to wrap-around-services
6. Crime in Winnebago County
7. The impact of the one-cent public safety sales tax
8. Alternative to incarceration: Better results. Lower costs
9. The Resource Intervention Center: A 21st century model
10. A week at the RIC