State-funded alternative court programs in jeopardy in Will, Grundy counties

JOLIET – State-funded alternative court programs – designed to dramatically cut down on the number of nonviolent offenders in prison through rehabilitation – are in jeopardy.

Adult Redeploy Illinois state grant dollars are being held up because of the political gridlock in Springfield.

Those dollars help counties such as Will and Grundy create and maintain alternative treatment programs to divert nonviolent offenders from prison and into community services. Instead of sitting in a prison cell, would-be inmates receive therapy, counseling and other services with a goal of reintegration into society.

The state owes about $100,000 for Grundy County’s Mental Health Court.

Will County, on the other hand, is owed about $200,000 for its Adult Redeploy Illinois specialty court, which is designed for nonviolent offenders with identified risk and needs but do not have substance abuse or mental health needs.

‘On shaky ground’

There are 10 participants in Grundy County’s Mental Health Court. The goal is to keep those mentally ill offenders from recommitting crimes and returning to prison by providing proper medication, therapy and other treatment.

But the program’s future is uncertain, said Grundy County Board Chairman David Welter.

The Grundy County Board this past fall agreed to float the program through a six-month period with the hope that Illinois government would get its act together, Welter said. With that six-month mark approaching, the Finance Committee will re-evaluate funding at its March 21 board meeting, he said.

“Uncertainty from the state has left this program on shaky ground,” Welter said. “The state is forcing us into making some tough decisions.”

The County Board likely cannot afford to fund the program further, Welter said, although he noted that decision will be up to the Finance Committee.

“We get that Gov. Bruce Rauner is trying to reduce our prison population, but you can’t make it an unfunded liability, an unfunded mandate, where local governments foot the bill,” Welter said.

Grundy County Circuit Judge Lance Peterson, who presides over Mental Health court, said there are legal ramifications to worry about if Illinois lets it go to the wayside while people remain in the program.

“They start off with the fact that they chose this program and entered pleas of guilty and were looking [to] resolve their cases. ... If the program were to shut down, there are significant legal issues with their cases,” Petersen said. “Can we unilaterally change their agreement?”

A commitment from the state

Julie McCabe-Sterr, coordinator for Will County’s alternative courts, received approval from the Will County Board late last year to shift $200,000 from the county’s Drug Court program to ARI. But how long those dollars can carry the program forward is unclear as funding availability dwindles.

“We’re in the process of evaluating how we’re going to proceed. We’re looking at all potential revenue sources until the state gets off the dime,” said Chuck Pelkie, spokesman for the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office. “The state’s attorney is very extraordinarily reluctant to end this program.”

Pelkie said Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow believes Will County “had commitment from the state” and that this program will be funded.

Will County Judge Carla Alessio-Policandriotes, who presides over Will County’s ARI program, said she is passionate about her work in the specialty court.

The Adult Redeploy Illinois program has demonstrated significant cost savings while reducing pressure on the state's prison system, according to an ARI statewide report. While it costs roughly $21,500 a year to house an inmate in the state's Department of Corrections, the average cost per ARI participant is $2,233.

“The reason a dead broke state of Illinois would give us a grant in the first place is because what we’re doing at the county level is much cheaper than the state having to incarcerate someone,” Alessio-Policandriotes said.

As similar programs remain in jeopardy statewide, Alessio-Policandriotes said she “will fight like hell” to continue specialty courts in Will County.

Will County Board Speaker Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort, said as of last week he is not aware of anyone yet approaching the board for funds for specialty courts. But, he added, he welcomes requests, given the state’s budget crisis.