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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Illinois Supreme Court Provides Big Picture Rules for “Specialty Courts” Aimed at Actual

Interested judges,  lawyers and accused persons actually can work to solve problems, as opposed to simply reaching decisions and meting out sentences. In that vein, the Supreme Court of Illinois has used trial court experience to create some broad rules for the specialty courts.  The rules and process to date are described in a December 8, 2105 article in the Chicago Daily Bulletin (pay wall).  In view of the public interest nature of the courts and rules, I’ve taken the liberty of pasting below the entire article.

Kudos to all involved for working to produce better and more useful outcomes for real people facing real problems.

“By Andrew Maloney

Law Bulletin staff writer SPRINGFIELD — Aiming to expand drug and mental health courts across the state, Illinois’ top justices announced wide-ranging rules for so-called “problem-solving courts” Tuesday morning.

The new guidelines from the Illinois Supreme Court describe for local circuits how to create and operate the non-adversarial courts that have gained traction across the country over the last decade or so for veterans, the mentally ill and other types of offenders.

According to the high court, there are more than 100 such problem-solving courts in the state, and more are in the works.

Chief Justice Rita B. Garman said because of the knowledge gained from those courts, Illinois is ready to enter a “new era” of expanding their availability.

“In effect, we are ready to use the knowledge and experience gained thus far to raise the bar so that individuals throughout the state have access to a problem-solving, rather than a purely punitive, justice system,” Garman said in a statement.

“Problem-solving courts serve not only the individuals whose conduct has brought them into to justice system, but their families, their neighborhoods and the community as a whole.”

State laws have specific rules for drug, mental health and veterans courts, and chief judges of judicial circuits have much of the authority to run them. The Veterans and Servicemembers Court Treatment Act, for example, says veterans are only eligible for a problem-solving court if prosecutors allow it and the crime is probationable, among other things.

But if the defendant completes the treatment program, his or her original charges can be dismissed.

With the new guidelines, local circuits are still given some latitude to decide, for instance, what types of therapeutic courts they will run and who is eligible for them.

But the new rules also say they need to look at certain types of data, create timelines and objectives and get their ideas approved by the high court’s administrative arm. They also have to propose a budget and have their idea reviewed on-site by the high court’s administrative office.

The new rules provide more specifics. They state that participants cannot be required to waive their appellate rights and that programs specifically target those who are most likely to reoffend because of unemployment or substance abuse.

The rules also state that judges who preside over the courts have training in a variety of areas, including criminal law, behavioral health and mental illness among others areas.

Courts already in existence have up to a year and a half to review the new rules and come into compliance with them.

The system puts a premium on “evidence-based practices,” which “shall be considered and utilized in all aspects of each (problem-solving court),” according to the 85-page document outlining the new high court standards.

They are defined in the document as “approaches which have been empirically researched and proven to have measurable positive outcomes.”

Although somewhat of a general term, the court document links to specific examples of such approaches, including a website citing a study from Hawaii in which a major finding was that “swift and certain” punishments deterred crime more than arbitrarily lengthy punishments.”

Another study showed keeping delinquent children and teens in community families — and away from other delinquents — also resulted in positive outcomes.

Second District Appellate Justice Kathryn E. Zenoff, a former chief judge in the 17th Judicial Circuit who ran one of the first mental health courts in the state, said that evidence-based practices “are essential to the success of these courts.”

“The standards and certification process, drafted with great care and attention by judges and (administrative) staff with extensive experience in this area, will ensure the utilization of these practices so that the participants in these courts and the public will see positive results,” she said in a statement.”

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