Pubdate: Mon, 05 Jan 2009
Source: Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Copyright: 2009 The Daily Herald Company
Author: Charles Keeshan
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Buoyed by their success with a special court for criminal defendants
suffering from mental illness, officials in McHenry County's legal system
are now turning their attention to drug abusers.

State's Attorney Louis Bianchi said he hopes 2009 will be the year the
county launches a drug court that would offer nonviolent offenders a
chance for treatment instead of prison.

"We're eager to get it started," Bianchi said. "We should be able to get
it off the ground, or at least have a date certain for when it will begin,
by the end of the year."

Although some details remain undecided, the basic premise of the court
would be to allow criminal offenders dealing with a substance abuse
problem to enter a tightly structured treatment program instead of go to
jail or prison.

It would to some degree mirror the county's mental health court, which
after about 18 months has yet to see a participant commit another crime.

Expecting similar results from drug addicts may be too much to expect,
Bianchi said, but there is plenty of evidence drug courts work.

In Kane County, where officials began a drug court in 2000, the one-year
recidivism rate for participants is about 15 percent. The national rate
for offenders who do not participate in a drug court is about 45 percent,
according to the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance

Nationwide, that study found, drug courts had a recidivism rate between 5
and 28 percent.

"Drug courts have proven themselves nationally as being a cost-effective
alternative to incarcerating people with substance addictions," said Tom
Scott, treatment director for the Kane County drug court.

The Kane County program offers drug abusers charged with a crime - mostly
nonviolent felonies - an opportunity to avoid a lengthy incarceration by
participating in a treatment plan lasting at least two years.

As would be the case in McHenry County, a participant first would plead
guilty to the offense and then enter the program, which would require they
undergo treatment, frequent drug testing and weekly meetings with the drug
court judge.

"You treat the addiction rather than just punishing people for being an
addict," Scott said. "Most people feel it's been very successful."

Failing out of the program, at least in McHenry County, would lead to
"severe" consequences, Bianchi said.

Such programs, he added, are not only the right thing to do morally and
socially, but also financially. The Office of National Drug Control Policy
found that the average cost per drug court participant is $2,000. In
Illinois, it costs taxpayers $23,812 annually to keep a person in prison.

"What makes this so appealing from a citizen's standpoint is that it's
cheaper," Bianchi said. "Jailing a person with a drug habit is a very
costly proposition, and it's not solving the problem."

Bianchi said he, along with county judges, social service agencies and
others working in the system, hope to impanel a task force early this year
to begin laying the drug court's foundation.

How soon until the court gets started, however, may be out of their
control. In order to get the program off the ground, the county likely
will need state lawmakers to authorize the addition of another judge to
the county's 22nd Judicial Circuit Court.

"That's something we're working on," Bianchi said. "We need to get these
people better. Once they're better, hopefully they won't be committing
these crimes."
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