More sheriffs join DHS lawsuit

Months-long delays in admitting jail inmates for mental health services

click to enlarge More sheriffs join DHS lawsuit
Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell

Five sheriffs in downstate Illinois have joined Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell in a lawsuit to clear a chronic logjam of mentally ill inmates sitting in county jails for months while awaiting psychiatric treatment from the state.

"It's just not fair to the inmates," Jeff Connor, Madison County chief deputy, told Illinois Times. "Our goal in this is to do the right thing for the right reason."

Connor, second in command at the Madison County Sheriff's Office, spoke after his boss, Sheriff John Lakin, and sheriffs from McLean, Macon, Knox and Rock Island counties on July 21 sought to join Campbell's suit against Gov. JB Pritzker and Grace Hou, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Campbell and the other sheriffs complained in court documents about DHS' months-long delays in admitting county jail inmates declared unfit for trial. State law requires them to be admitted within about 20 days of being notified of a judge's finding of unfitness.

The sheriffs – including Republicans such as Campbell and Democrats such as Lakin – said in the documents that the delays, made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, were violating inmates' "due process" rights, harming their mental health, creating potentially hazardous conditions for both inmates and jail personnel and costing counties thousands of dollars in unreimbursed costs.

Sangamon County Associate Judge Karen Tharp has scheduled an Aug. 3 hearing on the suit, which was filed by Campbell on June 22. Pritzker, a Democrat, has asked Tharp to dismiss the case and deny the temporary restraining order requested by Campbell.

Tharp hasn't ruled yet on those requests or on Campbell's request that the judge allow him to file an amended complaint adding the five downstate sheriffs to the case. Judges usually allow amended complaints.

Sangamon County incurred $90,254 in unreimbursed costs in 2020, housing unfit inmates more than 20 days after they were declared unfit and before they were transferred to DHS facilities.

The cost was almost $87,000 in 2021 and $71,100 so far in 2022, according to the lawsuit.

The Sangamon County Jail has nine unfit inmates awaiting transfer to DHS. The totals include 19 inmates in the Madison County Jail, including one waiting since February; eight in the McLean County Jail; three in the Macon County Jail; two in the Knox County Jail; and five in the Rock Island County Jail, according to the suit.

Campbell and the other sheriffs say in court documents that a July 6 executive order from Pritzker doesn't make the sheriff's complaints moot, contrary to arguments made by lawyers representing the state.

Campbell's original lawsuit said Pritzker overstepped his legal authority when he issued an executive order in April 2020 that suspended admissions and the 20-day statutory time period for admissions.

The order gave Hou "sole and unfettered discretion" over which criminal defendants should be admitted to one of seven state-operated psychiatric hospitals for treatment to restore their mental fitness.

The executive order was issued as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Illinois and state officials were struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19 and deal with the pandemic's effect on staffing levels.

The order has been renewed since then and was tweaked July 6 to eliminate the phrase that gave Hou sole discretion for admissions.

The updated order put in place "prioritization criteria" for admission. Those criteria include "dangerousness to self or others, acute mental health needs, likelihood of decompensation while in jail and length of time waiting" for admission to a DHS facility.

But Campbell and the other sheriffs said in court documents that the new order doesn't solve the overall problem.

The sheriffs said Pritzker's order is an "attempt to provide cover for years of resource allocation deficiencies and strategic planning failures which have resulted in a well-established pattern of substantial admission delays dating back years before the COVID-19 pandemic."

The lawsuit calls for Hou to "implement an admissions process that comports with federal and state due process protections."

A July 8 statement from the Illinois Sheriffs' Association said Pritzker's new order "is merely a cynical attempt to sustain a longstanding pattern of indefinite DHS admission and treatment delays without any meaningful solutions from the state."

The statement said Illinois residents "should demand that their government solve problems and not create and sustain conditions which jeopardize the safety of jail staff and vulnerable, mentally ill inmates." Assistant Attorney General Maria Gray said in documents defending the governor's actions that the provisions of the 2020 executive order challenged by Campbell "are no longer in effect."

She said Pritzker didn't overstep his statutory authority. She also said Campbell "does not allege any facts showing that individuals are not being admitted into DHS facilities as beds become available."

Campbell asks the court to speculate that admissions would occur quicker if the executive order were declared invalid, she said.

DHS officials said in June the pandemic was to blame for an "unprecedented backlog" of about 150 people sitting in county jails throughout the state after being declared temporarily unfit for trial and waiting for a bed in a DHS facility.

Sangamon Circuit Judge Adam Giganti ruled the state in civil contempt of court June 29 for failure to transfer inmate Alfred Berry to a DHS facility. Berry, who was declared unfit April 7, was admitted June 30 to the state's McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield.

State's Attorney Dan Wright so far has sought contempt-of-court rulings against the state in cases involving nine different criminal defendants who were found unfit and waited for transfer to DHS longer than 20 days.

Other than in Berry's case, the state avoided potential contempt findings when it transferred four of the nine Sangamon County inmates to DHS before a judge had a chance to rule on the issue.

One inmate awaiting transfer was later determined fit for trial, and cases involving three other inmates have been scheduled for hearings on Wright's contempt-of-court requests July 28 and Aug. 3.

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at dolsen@illinoistimes.com, 217-679-7820 or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.