Specialized court system helps addicts achieve sobriety

Jeff Burnett, Staff Writer

This November, Sangamon County’s Drug Treatment Court will be coming up on its six-year anniversary of helping drug-addicted defendants with treatment and support to achieve sobriety.

Drug Treatment Court operates differently than a traditional criminal court because it is designed and structured specifically for non-violent felony offenders with drug dependency problems that have had multiple run-ins with law enforcement.

The process takes a rehabilitation approach to drug offenders, rather than locking them up and releasing them into the same environment without a support system.

“Drug Court is a really good way of keeping people clean and sober and not recommitting crimes, and it’s a good support system,” said Valerie Gebhardt, the alcohol and other drug (AOD) prevention coordinator at UIS.

Participants are required to attend substance abuse treatment and support meetings, along with drug testing and court appearances.
All defendants start attending on a weekly basis, but the more they progress in the program the less they have to appear in court.
“When we identify these folks, it’s a specialized probation, and work towards giving them the resources so they can kick their addiction,” said Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser.

Each participant’s progress is monitored by the Drug Court team consisting of a judge, representatives of the State’s Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, and a private attorney; along with the probation office, treatment center such as Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, the Gateway Foundation, and the Mental Health Center.

“When I worked in treatment centers, it was really hard to get information to the court and to probation officers,” Gebhardt said. “The communication just wasn’t there as well as it is now with Drug Court because, with drug court, you have a whole team.”
In order for a person to participate, the defendant must have a non-violent drug related felony and admitted to a drug addiction. After that, both the defendant and the Drug Court team agrees on participation in the program.

The process is intended to reduce drug use, prevent relapse, deter crime, and lower criminal justice costs.

Gebhardt said, “When they’re in the Drug Court system, they’re referred to treatment centers, mental health facilities; going to AA [alcoholics anonymous]; all those good support systems that they may not have had previously.”

In most cases, first-time drug offenders don’t qualify for the program because it is designed for offenders who have been in and out of the criminal system.

“Drug Court is identifying the high-risk, high-need population, so it’s identifying those that traditional probation hasn’t [helped],” Milhiser said. “Many, many of the participants in the Drug Court have been to the department of corrections. It has not worked.”

Not only is the Drug Court structure different than regular court, but the rehabilitation process and its outcomes are also unique.

Unlike regular court, participants are rewarded for good behavior while in the program, but those who make mistakes and get off the sober path are sanctioned from the court.

“There are incentives, even something as small as a candy bar in court can go a long way. A clap; a pat on the back; a ‘good job’ by the prosecutor; a ‘good job’ by the judge; a ‘good job’ by the Drug Court team,” Milhiser said. “A lot of these folks in here, maybe they never had anyone tell them ‘good job.’”

Milhiser said that when it comes to court sanctions, they can ask for the defendant to write an essay about their actions, serve minor jail time, or ultimately drop out of the program and serve a full jail or prison sentence.

The county started its Drug Treatment Court program on Nov. 29, 2010 with 25 participants after receiving a $300,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to go toward the program’s costs of treatment, drug evaluations, and training.

Sangamon County participated as one of 30 Illinois counties that established the Drug Court system after Illinois lawmakers passed the Drug Court Treatment Act, which mandated that each county have its own program.

The Drug Court Treatment Act encourages that each county meet 10 key components developed by the Drug Court Standards Committee of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals for the duration of the court program.

“It was mandated in 2010 that every circuit had to have a Drug Court and I think it’s because all of the systems being clogged and nobody being able to talk and communicate well,” said Gebhardt.

The concept of drug courts is relatively new, compared to the standard justice system, and has only been active for 27 years since it first started in Florida in 1989 at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic.

According to National Association of Drug Court Professionals, there are 116 adult drug programs located throughout the state of Illinois.

“Drug courts have worked nationwide. When a person is arrested, put in Drug Court, and successfully completes Drug Court; over 70 percent of them remain crime-free for more than two years after graduating,” Milhiser said.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) estimates that Drug Courts can yield a savings of $21,000 annually, with the average participant costing around $2,000. The ONDCP states that every $1 spent on the program can yield more than $2 in savings with the criminal justice system.

“Years ago, we had lots of treatment facilities … and then they started pulling all of the funding,” Gebhardt said. “And all of the money was going into prisons, and I think, hopefully, that there has been some awareness that addiction is a health issue.”
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2010, Illinois spent $1.7 billion in prison expenditures with an average cost of $38,268 per inmate.

Sangamon County has expanded its specialized courts to Mental Health Recovery Court, which in some cases can overlap with Drug Court because many of the participants have mental health issues.

“I think more specialized courts in the future will be something that will happen here in Sangamon County,” Milhiser said.