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updated: 3/10/2016 9:25 AM

Do mental health courts work? Stats soon could explain

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Anecdotal evidence abounds about the benefits of mental health courts.

Advocates say these programs of close monitoring and mandated treatment keep nonviolent offenders with mental illnesses out of prison and connect them with therapy, medication, structure -- even help with housing and jobs.

By graduation, many participants in the DuPage County Mental Illness Court Alternative Program are teary-eyed, "thanking the police officers for arresting them and saying how the program has changed their lives," program manager Jean Solon said.

But until a new state data recording requirement kicks in fully next year, statistics proving these courts keep communities safer and help people with mental conditions stabilize their lives are hard to find.

"Success with mental health court is so much harder to determine than success with our other courts because mental illness is not going to go away," said Julie McCabe-Sterr, coordinator of mental health court for the Will County state's attorney's office. "For people who are chronically mentally ill, the best measure of success is that they continue to remain engaged in their treatment and have a quality of life."

Many mental health courts keep some level of statistics about recidivism to show how well their programs prevent participants from breaking the law again. But each court defines "recidivism" differently, deciding whether to track arrests or charges, misdemeanors or felonies -- or all of the above. Some courts record new offenses only in their jurisdictions, while others use a nationwide law enforcement database to turn up arrests no matter where they take place.

These differences in record-keeping are common across the state, judicial officials say. But leaders of the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts are calling for uniform statistics as part of a certification process all problem-solving courts must undergo beginning this year.

Mental health, veterans and drug courts will be required to record specific data so officials can see the benefits or drawbacks to these programs.

"We're ensuring not only do the programs meet the standards," said Michael Tardy, director of the state courts group, "but that we can move from the anecdotal, 'My problem-solving court works,' to having the data evidence that, 'Yes, it does work.'"

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