Criminalization of Mental Illness

​After seeing a revolving door of individuals in custody suffering from mental illness at the Cook County Jail, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), under Sheriff Dart, began to address one of the root issues that faces sheriffs managing jails across the country: jails have become repositories for people with untreated mental illness. Over the last many years, CCSO staff has tracked data on the mental health needs of incoming individuals in custody. Currently, in 2021, on any given day, nearly half 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. Many of these individuals in custody are in jail for nonviolent offenses closely associated with their unmet mental health needs.

The high population of individuals in custody who have mental health needs in Cook County Jail is representative of jail populations across the country. In 44 states, jails or prisons house and care for more individuals with mental illness than hospitals do across those states. Decades of cuts to mental health budgets have led to limited services, leaving many to commit crimes of survival.

While Cook County Jail must accept everyone ordered into custody, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, under Sheriff Dart, has changed the status quo with regards to treating individuals in custody with unmet mental health needs. Instead of housing individuals with mental illness without providing care and treatment for their needs, early in his tenure, Sheriff Dart chose to deal with the problem at hand: if his jail population needed mental health treatment, then he, as Sheriff, would find the experts and care providers to make available necessary care and treatment for individuals in custody so that their needs could be met. This helped people while also helping the system overall: treating people’s mental health needs reduced recidivism rates and lowered the jail’s population over time.

The below list offers more information on some of the programs the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, under Sheriff Dart, has implemented to offer treatment to those in custody and to support people when they return to the community:

  • Mental Health Transition Center
  • Supportive Release Center
  • 24/7 Care Line: (773) 674-CARE (2273) Our Care Line is answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by Department of Corrections Program Department staff. Any individual who is concerned about a individual in custody’s mental health may use this number to call with questions/concerns.

For a template that examines and explains the initiatives that have been developed by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, under Sheriff Dart, on providing mental health help within a jail setting, please click here: