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Drug courts' mission to save, not imprison

Participants get treatment, life skills training

Published: Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST • Updated: Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014 9:19 p.m. CST

MORRISON – Lee County’s drug court program has been around since 2005. Ogle County has had one in place since 2009.

Come September, Whiteside County will become the latest to offer the rehabilitative court service.

Drug courts are a type of restorative justice program used in counties all over America. The program is available to nonviolent offenders with a documented history of substance abuse.

After a drug suspect is arrested, his attorney can suggest drug court as a viable option. If the drug court team agrees, an offender is given the opportunity to participate. If he makes it through the intensive, life-rehabilitating program, he could see his sentence reduced or even his charge dropped altogether.

Participants in the program are randomly drug tested, and must appear in front of a judge regularly so their progress can be monitored.

Courts across the country vary in their guidelines, but in Whiteside County, at least, State’s Attorney Trish Joyce hopes to match participants with community mentors.

She hopes that will give them the opportunity to participate in service projects with different Whiteside County organizations.

“[If a participant is a veteran], we’d try to find someone who is a veteran, who may be familiar with veterans’ issues, to see, perhaps, if those people could form a bond or a rapport, and would involve them in, maybe, veterans activities,” Joyce said. “But it could be anybody that might address a need – somebody who could show them some positives that they could turn their attention to.”

Whiteside County is planning for its program to be a series of five phases, as compared to Lee County’s four-phase process.

As participants pass through each phase, they’ll be offered more opportunities to demonstrate positive life change.

For example, in the first phase of Lee County’s program, participants must submit to a minimum of three weekly random drug tests, meet with a probation officer four times a month, and establish educational or work contacts. By the fourth phase, their drug screenings will decrease to once a week, they’ll be required to meet with their probation officer only twice a month, they will be employed or attending school full-time, and they’ll have earned a GED or high school diploma.

Joyce said that Whiteside County’s program won’t have the exact same requirements as Lee County’s, but the idea behind the requirements will be the same: to change someone’s life completely.

Judge John L. Hauptman will preside over the court, a service he’s excited to begin.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a win-win situation,” he said. “If this works, then we’re helping to reduce the cost to the taxpayer – we’re not paying for these people to stay in prison. And the relative cost between someone spending – let’s say as an example – 3 years in the DOC, as opposed to 18 months of intensive treatment, it’s just a no-brainer. It doesn’t even compare.”

According to a 2010 report from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the effects of having a drug court in a community are overwhelmingly positive:

• Nationwide, 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free at least 2 years after they leave the program.

• Drug courts reduce crime as much as 45 percent more than other sentencing options.

• Drug courts save from $3,000 to $13,000 per offender – in reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrests and trials, and reduced victimization.

“I can say, and I don’t have the statistics right at my hand, but at least – and it’s a conservative estimate – at least 75 percent of the people I see in my criminal court have some sort of substance abuse issue,” Hauptman said. “The evidence across the country with other drug courts is that these specialty courts do help deal with this addiction problem.”

Establishing a drug court has been on the to-do list of Joyce since she was elected to the office in 2012.

To prepare, she and others involved in the court have spent the past year-and-a-half traveling to training sessions and observing other drug courts in the area. They had a 3-day intensive training session at the end of June.

They’ll head to DeKalb for one more observational session at the beginning of September before Whiteside County’s program officially launches.

Joyce hopes that, eventually, the program will be entirely self-sufficient, not relying on additional funding from the county. Until then, the program will mostly rely on a 3-year grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, one that Hauptman said the county was fortunate to receive.

“I’m very enthusiastic about it,” Hauptmann said. “I’m really looking forward to getting this started. There’s going to be a learning curve; there’s no question about it – we’re going to make our mistakes. But when you consider the team that we’ve put together and the dedication level that I see in these team members, I have really, really high hopes for success.”

Success stories

Lee County (since 2005):

- 82 participants - 32 successful graduates - Three gradues rearrested: one misdemeanors, two felonies

Ogle County (since 2009):

- 30 participants - 15 successful graduates - Four graduates rearrested: two misdemeanors, two felonies

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