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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 11:10 am

Hope for drug addicts

Drug courts save money, change lives

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Her uneasiness is reflected in the short, quick steps she takes as she approaches the judge’s bench. This thin, frail woman of about 30 years is in court on drug charges, and her frazzled hair, wrinkled lips and gaunt features make her appear old. As she stands before Sangamon County circuit judge Leo Zappa, she wrings her hands restlessly and looks at the floor, perhaps awaiting the inevitable gavel strike that will send her to jail for possession of illegal drugs.

But the gavel never falls. Instead, Zappa and the woman’s public defender work out a deal: she will be among the first referrals to the county’s recently started drug court, which offers an alternate way to handle drug addiction in the justice system.

The Illinois legislature introduced drug courts in 2009 as a way to save money while shifting corrections from a punishment-focused model to one of rehabilitation. Instead of sending certain nonviolent drug offenders to prison, drug courts enroll them in an intense rehabilitation program geared toward ending addiction and preventing further drug-related crime.

Started in early December with a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, the new drug court will start with no more than 25 cases as a trial run, says Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser. He oversaw the drug court’s creation, which is mandated by state law. Twenty-seven of Illinois’ 102 counties now have drug courts. “Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of drug court graduates leading productive lives,” Milhiser says. “Ultimately, less drug dependence is good for the community.”

The program requires participation in substance abuse rehabilitation, weekly drug tests and intense monitoring by parole officers. It is open to adult drug offenders who have not been convicted of a violent crime in the past 10 years and who have not been convicted of dealing drugs. Participants also must not have previously completed drug court or been kicked out of the program.

All 50 states have adopted drug courts, and the effect on crime has been noticeable, according to the Virginia-based National Drug Court Institute. Drug courts have reduced crime by seven to 14 percent, NDCI says, with some areas experiencing reductions in crime as high as 35 percent. A study in California shows that the re-arrest rate among drug court graduates was 17 percent, compared with 41 percent for similar drug offenders who did not participate in drug courts.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy says drug courts are also more cost effective than incarceration. The typical drug court participant incurs an annual cost of about $2,000, the office says, compared with the national average of $23,000 to incarcerate one drug offender for a year. In 2002, Illinois spent an average of $23, 812 per inmate on incarceration, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

“The major thing about drug court is that people don’t return to the system,” says Sangamon County first assistant States Attorney Matthew Maurer. “It helps them turn their lives around. It’s about them becoming productive rather than housing them in prison at expense of the state.”

As recently as 2002, the Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center identified crack cocaine as the most commonly abused drug in Illinois, followed by marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Milhiser says it is difficult to quantify how big of a problem drug abuse is in Sangamon County, but “in a high percentage of cases we see, drugs are involved, whether it’s possession of drugs, stealing things to buy drugs or some other crime.”

Milhiser says his office is examining similar courts for veterans and those with mental illnesses, to be instituted in the coming years. “The value of this is getting treatment providers involved, to address the special issues many people in court face,” he says. “If we can combat mental illness and get them the treatment they need, it will be beneficial for the whole community.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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