Get out of jail clean
It is Friday, and drug court is back in session on the seventh floor of the Sangamon County courthouse.
As on every Friday at 11 a.m., two dozen or so participants in the county’s fledgling drug court wait for the judge, discussing results of tests that determine whether they’ve been drinking or doping. Pass and you get a candy bar from a small bucket kept adjacent to the bench where the judge presides. Fail and you could end up in jail for a few days or weeks – it’s all up to the judge, who will take into account your track record when deciding on a penalty.
One man tells those around him why a positive result wouldn’t be surprising.
“They told me no mouthwash or cologne, but they didn’t say anything about body spray,” says the man, concerned that he may have inadvertently contaminated his sample with alcohol-based body cleanser.
He turns up clean and walks away with a Kit Kat. Another who has tested positive for cocaine is ordered to jail for 30 days by Associate Judge Brian Otwell, who is filling in for Associate Judge Pete Cavanagh, who usually presides.
Then there are the three guys who met in drug court and have gotten in trouble together.
They have, between them, nine felony convictions for burglary and theft. They’ve all been to prison. All 30-somethings, they work at the same automobile service business, which one of them started after enrolling in drug court more than a year ago and then breaking a heroin addiction. And now they’re facing punishment for not disclosing that they had planned a weekend trip to Ohio, not to see a baseball game or attend a concert, but to visit the Akron home where Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935.
Not being truthful when there was no cause to lie, the former heroin addict turned business owner later explains, was simply a bad habit, and he is not fully reformed. Call him Steve – he asked that his real name not be used, given that he is a convicted car prowler who works on automobiles for a living and is entrusted with keys by customers who don’t know about his past.
Drug court participants are on probation in the eyes of the law, and so must obtain court permission before traveling out of state. When court administrators got wind of the impending trip, Steve says that he initially denied any such plans, then called court administrators and told the truth.
“I’m a criminal, and it was just criminal thinking,” he offers after coming clean.
Otwell peers at the men before him for a moment, not saying anything, as if trying to read them. They’ve been drug-free for months, and they are working. They were, in short, doing everything they were supposed to do. And now this.
“I gotta tell you guys, there was a lengthy discussion as to whether you should be allowed to go on that trip,” Otwell tells them. “There’s going to be some conditions.”
Regardless of whether they go to Ohio, the defendants must perform eight hours of community service for not being forthright about their travel plans, Otwell decides. They must also write an essay about the importance of being honest and transparent. And, perhaps most importantly, they must present themselves for drug testing as soon as they get back.
They walk away with candy bars. Three days later, when they return from Ohio, tests show they have no drugs or alcohol in their systems. The essay is finished within a week, and Habitat For Humanity got some free labor.
Steve spends at least five minutes telling Judge Cavanagh about the trip when he and his fellow travelers return. He says that he learned in Ohio that he shouldn’t judge other people.
“The knowledge that they have far surpasses here,” Steven tells the judge. “When I’d look at someone on first sight, I’d say ‘Whoa, this dude’s fucked up.’ But I shouldn’t be judgmental.”
Cavanagh listens until Steven is finished.
“I’m going to excuse the language, even in a court of law – you’re being real,” Cavanagh says. “That’s the most I’ve heard you say in a year or two.”
This is what can happen when the system works with addicts instead of putting them in jail.
A last chance
The concept is simple.
Instead of going to jail, defendants with drug problems agree to enter drug court, where they’ll get treatment and frequent drug tests to ensure that the treatment is working. Drug courts vary from county to county and state to state, but in Sangamon County, offenders must plead guilty to the underlying offense, which is often a property crime committed to feed a habit. They receive 30 months of probation, during which time they will be under jurisdiction of the drug court. If they flunk out, their probation is revoked and they are sentenced on the charge to which they have pleaded guilty.
It is, some argue, putting the adversarial nature of American jurisprudence on its head. Probationers in drug court still have lawyers, but attorneys for the public defender’s office at three recent court sessions rarely said anything. Instead, probation officers, prosecutors and the judge did most of the talking as defendants were alternately chided, praised and scolded, with the gallery applauding at successes and falling into respectful silence when someone falls short and is sent to jail, usually for failing a drug test.
The first drug court in America began in 1989 in Florida, but the concept is fairly new in central Illinois.
Under state law, every circuit court in Illinois must have a drug court program, but that has not translated into universal access. Champaign County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Ford, who in 1999 started one of the state’s first drug courts, says that drug courts are present in less than half the 102 counties in Illinois. Some circuits contain several counties, and Ford isn’t sure whether the state mandate has been met.
“I can’t tell you if every circuit has one yet,” Ford says. “I know we have at least 40 drug courts in the state. They are coming in. They’re relatively new and up-and-coming.”
Under state law, there is supposed to be a statewide drug court coordinator, someone who, among other things, could help hustle up grants to keep drug courts in business. But no coordinator has been hired because legislators did not provide a salary when they created the position.
“Right now, Illinois is not that organized, but we try to pick it up wherever we can,” Ford says.
Illinois isn’t alone. A fraction of the 1.2 million defendants who are in America’s court system due to drug problems have access to drug courts, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which says that drug courts should be within reach of every American in need.
The Sangamon County program, Ford says, is typical for central Illinois – about three years old and started up thanks to $300,000 or so in federal grants. Implementation in Sangamon County was delayed due to lack of funds, but the first session convened in December 2010. There have been seven graduates and, roughly, twice as many failures. Court administrators are hoping for a half-dozen more graduates in October.
That, say the folks who run drug court, is success.
“I think it’s working well,” says Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser, who made it a point to attend drug court graduation ceremonies last October and April. “I would hope we could expand to more individuals in drug court.”
Milhiser hopes that drug court is just the start in dealing with defendants whose criminal behavior isn’t easily addressed by conventional methods. He says that he hopes to start up a mental health court dedicated to people whose mental issues result in arrest and incarceration. There are, however, no guarantees about the future when it comes to providing alternatives to incarceration for folks who might be better off getting treatment.
It boils down to money.
Drug treatment is, by far, the most expensive element of drug court. Federal grants come with matching requirements, and Sangamon County is paying its share with a $5 fee tacked onto court costs ordered in misdemeanor and felony cases. Money has gotten tight despite federal grants.
Lack of funds has meant some adjustments, says Mike Torchia, Sangamon County director of court services.
“There was a point where we weren’t accepting anyone new because we’d run out of money for treatment that year,” Torchia said.
In such cases, new participants entered drug court after short delays, Torchia said, while administrators figured out how to get the state to cover treatment costs for existing participants. Federal funding isn’t certain in the long term, and so drug court administrators have looked at other options, including the formation of a nonprofit tax-exempt fundraising organization that would provide money.
“I think everyone’s committed to drug court,” Torchia said. “It’s just a matter of finding enough resources to continue it.”
Critics, controversy and results
If there is a poster child for drug court, it is Dwayne Jackson.
Jackson, 51, has a string of felony drug convictions in Sangamon County dating back to 2002, shortly after he arrived in Springfield from Chicago, intent on changing his ways.
“I brought myself with me,” says Jackson, who has racked up four felony drug convictions since arriving in Springfield.
Jackson says that he’d lost hope of living without drugs or alcohol – cocaine, marijuana, pills, it didn’t matter.
“I got high 24/7,” Jackson recalls. “Anything to alter my mind.”
He is, by all appearances, a changed man. And he credits drug court, where he landed more than two years ago thanks to a felony drug charge.
He stumbled at first, racking up two one-week jail stints and another lasting two weeks before he started testing clean consistently. He whittled a $450 probation fee to a zero balance in January, when he made the last of a series of 16 payments in amounts varying from $10 to $50. When he had open-heart surgery last summer, he was four months clean and determined.
“No pain pills,” he told the doctors.
In April, he graduated from drug court.
Jacskon is, by all appearances, a changed man. He credits drug court. Without being around people in the same position as himself, Jackson says, he could not have succeeded. And so he continues going to drug court each week, even though he is no longer required to attend, giving rides to participants in need of transportation and offering support.
“This is a vision I never had,” Jackson said.
Still, Jackson isn’t necessarily in the majority when it comes to drug court outcomes, as critics are quick to point out.
Nationwide, drug court graduation rates vary from 30 to 70 percent. Those who flunk out of drug court, once sentenced, often end up spending more time behind bars than if they had not enrolled in drug court, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors decriminalization of drugs and broad access to drug treatment. Furthermore, drug courts are prone to “cherry pick” participants so that those with the least-serious drug problems, the greatest chance of success and the least need for help get enrolled while more challenging candidates are rejected, critics say.
In short, it is more effective and cost efficient to offer drug treatment to anyone who wants it, regardless of whether they are charged with a crime, than it is to limit treatment to those who are facing a choice between getting clean and going to prison, critics say.
“Many participants have had dramatic, life-altering experiences in drug courts,” says the Drug Policy Alliance in a critical 2011 report. “The issue is not whether drug courts do some good – they undoubtedly do – but whether the proliferation of drug courts is good social policy as compared with other available approaches to addressing drug use.”
The efficacy of drug courts has been hotly debated and probed in dozens of studies, some more academically rigorous than others. The General Accountability Office in 2005 published a report based on an analysis of 23 studies and found that drug courts reduce recidivism. The GAO also found cost savings.
In Champaign County, Judge Ford has heard the criticism and has statistics of his own.
In 2011 and 2012, Ford says that his drug court graduated 48 people, who collectively had 298 traffic tickets, 144 misdemeanors and 184 felonies – all told, the 48 defendants, before enrolling in drug court, had received 56 sentences to county jail and 89 sentences to state prison. Their average age was 38, most began using drugs in their teens and they averaged more than 20 years of drug use before landing in drug court.
No one, Ford says, is picking cherries in his courthouse.
“We take long-term addicts who have criminal histories – that’s what we do,” Ford says. “If these people weren’t getting into drug court, they would be going back to the Department of Corrections.”
The same is true in Sangamon County, where Milhiser and others describe drug court as a last chance for those who would otherwise be going to prison.
“The results we are seeing are just so encouraging,” says Judge Cavanagh. “We’re dealing with long-term addiction that people are recognizing and, for the first time, getting committed to treatment and getting help.”
Ford also dismisses any suggestion that drug court abandons the notion that defendants are innocent until proven guilty and forces participants to give up constitutional rights.
“It’s a voluntary entry program,” Ford points out. “The (defense) attorneys make sure they have talked it over with defendants and they understand the situation. This isn’t something that’s been forced on anybody.”
If drug court can keep defendants relatively drug- and alcohol-free and out of the criminal justice system, that’s a success, Cavanagh says.
“We’re not Mom and Dad,” Cavanagh says. “We’re not raising them again.”
Cavanagh holds no illusions. While no graduates have racked up fresh criminal charges, there have been just seven graduates and less than one year since the first graduation ceremony.
“I’m no dummy,” Cavanagh says. “Some day, we’re going to get burned. We know that.”
But it is, Cavanagh and others say, better than an assembly line throw-their-butts-in-jail approach to folks who have already had their butts thrown in jail.
“They’re coming in for all sorts of reasons,” Ford says. “We try to show them the path. For some people, it’s very difficult stuff to do, and they try their best. Other people have been around the block and think, ‘Oh, I don’t have to go to prison.’ I’ve had both types graduate and both types fail.
“You have to be creative.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.