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Criminalization of Mental Illness

On any given day up to a third of those incarcerated at Cook County Jail suffer from some form of mental illness, making the jail the largest mental health hospital in Illinois – and one of the largest in the country. The majority of these inmates are in jail for nonviolent offenses closely associated with their mental health.

Cook County Jail is, unfortunately, the rule not the exception when it comes to the number of incarcerated individuals with mental illnesses. In 44 states, jails or prisons house and care for more individuals with mental illness than hospitals. Decades of cuts to mental health budgets have led to limited services, leaving many to commit crimes of survival. In Cook County alone, six mental health clinics have closed in recent years.

While Cook County Jail must accept everyone ordered into custody, it does not have to accept the status quo of just housing individuals until their criminal cases are resolved. Early in his tenure, Sheriff Dart decided to go beyond his typical role as Sheriff and provide necessary care for mentally ill detainees as if they were in a treatment facility, instead of a jail.

Below are some of the programs he has implemented to work with this population while they are in custody and to support them when they return to the community.

  • Mental Health Transition Center
  • Supportive Release Center
  • Pre-bond Initiative: Since 2012, Cook County Jail has required two stages of mental health assessments – pre-bond and post-admission. The pre-bond assessments allow Cook County Jail staff to organize housing and treatment plans in the event of a successful diversion or standard recognizance releases.
  • 24/7 Care Line: (773) 674-CARE (2273)

Click here for a template that explains how the Sheriff’s initiatives on mental health can be replicated in other jurisdictions:

Mental Health Template


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