By HILARY POWELL AND SATTA SARMAH, Medill News Service
Last June, Layreese Moore was sitting in an alley behind the Harold Ickes Homes when she was arrested for possession of crack cocaine and heroin.
Moore, who had been homeless for an entire year before her arrest, and had already served so many stints in Cook County Jail she had lost count, was about to be offered a second chance.
She got that chance in Courtroom 504 in the Cook County Criminal Courts building. This room sees its share of defendants every day, some of them children and others old enough to be grandparents, most of them there because of drugs.
Moore was given two options: She could plead guilty to the charges and serve a long jail sentence, or she could enroll in drug court, a program that mandated 120 days in jail followed by 18 months of intensive rehabilitation and weekly drug testing.
“My plan was not to be locked up, but God had another plan,” Moore said.
That plan came from courtroom 504’s associate judge, Lawrence P. Fox.
Moore, 37, chose the drug program and graduated in November 2007 without ever testing positive for drugs. She is just one of 537 people who has completed Cook County’s Rehabilitation Alternative Probation program since its inception in 1998.
The program is one of almost 1,700 drug courts nationwide. The first drug court opened in Miami in 1989 in response to increasing felony drug offenses and overcrowding in jails. Similar to drug courts that emerged later, the Miami drug court enrolled offenders in a treatment program with the hope of stemming recidivism.
Drug courts shift the focus from merely prosecuting offenders to offering “therapeutic jurisprudence.” However, their effects on reducing repeat offenses vary from state to state and county to county.
A chance for treatment
There are 19 drug courts in Illinois. Three of them are located in Cook County, including the Cook County Criminal Courts building at 26th Street and California. There, funding is done entirely with probation collection fees. In addition, 26th Street and California deals only with non-violent offenders who have violated probation.
Probation violators are charged with a possession of a controlled substance. If they choose to enroll in drug court, that charge is dismissed.
Mark Kammerer, director of drug treatment programs for the Cook County Narcotics Prosecutions Bureau, said drug court is more about reform than prosecution.
“All of these things for sure are about second, third and fourth chances,” Kammerer said. “Without programs like this, there would be more people in jail.”
The Cook County drug court accepts non-violent offenders with an unlimited number of felonies.
Sue Stanger, the coordinator of the program, said, on any given day, the court caseload includes more than 175 active cases.
“We think it’s likely that [the criminal] behavior is related to drugs. So if you are an addict who wants treatment, we’ll take you,” she said.
Even with the multitude of cases, Stanger said applicants for the program are thoroughly evaluated before they are accepted. The court does a drug test, and applicants are screened using standards from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. These measures help to ensure the right people get into the program and not merely those who want to avoid incarceration.
The treatment process includes judicial supervision. Counseling and rehabilitation services are also provided by a team of case managers and local treatment centers. And once or twice weekly, drug testing is done. Participants must frequently check in with probation officers and the judge. If they don’t meet these requirements, they are subject to sanctions, such as home confinement, more frequent drug testing, or one-day confinement in the court lock-up.
“This is considered coerced treatment, but after awhile it’s not considered coerced anymore,” Kammerer said. “People who end up in drug court get much better treatment than we would get with our insurance.”
When jail doesn’t work
Treatment is not just medical. A key feature of drug courts is a non-adversarial approach in which state’s attorneys, defendants’ lawyers and judges work together to do what’s best for participants.
On the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, this approach was evident in Courtroom 504. Fox, a former public defender who has been the drug court’s only judge since its implementation in 1998, is just as likely to chastise defendants as he is to congratulate them.
“Maybe you can say you never got high after your 40th birthday,” he told one defendant, giving a hearty handshake and handing him a certificate for completion of his drug court sentence.
Just seconds before, though, he chided a middle-aged man who had violated probation, telling the defendant, “If you come up positive for drugs one more time, you’re finished.”
Fox said the people who pass through his courtroom aren’t new to the system, but many are, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Emily Cole, who has worked with the Cook County drug court since 1998, said rehabilitation can often be a substitute for incarcerating repeat offenders.
“I’ve always been a true believer in alternative disciplines,” Cole said. “If a person’s been in and out of jail and that hasn’t worked, then, absolutely, I’m all for giving clients the chance to rehabilitate themselves.”
Some critics of drug courts, however, say stringent requirements prevent people with long criminal records from entering the program. A 2000 study by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice suggested expanding eligibility for drug courts to include offenders with more serious criminal records. The study asserted that this would make drug courts more effective in decreasing the jail population and saving states money on incarceration costs.
Though the number of people held in prisons and jails nationwide has passed the 2 million mark, drug court programs like the one in Cook County usually deal with a few hundred offenders. Fox contends the objective of these programs is reducing repeat offenses, not saving jail beds.
“What effect can a few hundred people have on the overcrowding population?” he said. “The bottom line is that their lives have been changed. We don’t want to see them back here, ever.”
Wesley Hertz, 27, is evidence that jail isn’t the only way. Hertz began using drugs at 13, and eventually found himself in a Kankakee drug court.
“Drug court is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said of the stiff requirements and close supervision of Kankakee’s 12- to 18-month program. He recently graduated and now has a job in construction.
Tracking results, lessons learned
Participants of drug courts, meanwhile, are usually tracked only two to three years after they complete the program.
Sue Stanger said the Cook County rehabilitation program has a 40-45 percent completion rate for participants, meaning more than half of people who enter the program do not complete it. She said addicts in the program have a much more extensive criminal background and therefore are harder to rehabilitate.
According to a recent internal review of Cook County’s drug court between 1999 and 2006 by Mark Kammerer, the director of treatment programs, the court had a dramatic effect on reducing the number of arrests and convictions.
Kammerer compared 443 participants’ criminal records one year before they completed drug court to one year after they graduated. The total number of arrests decreased by 83 percent, while convictions decreased by 80 percent.
The embodiment of these results can be seen twice a year, supporters note, when the program holds a graduation ceremony for successful participants.
This year the program graduated 24 people. A their recent graduation, one after one came to the podium to collect his or her certificate, telling the audience how they benefited from the program.
Layreese Moore, who just a year earlier was arrested in the alley behind the Ickes Homes, told the audience she was a grateful member of Narcotics Anonymous.
“I know that I never want to shoot anymore dope,” she insisted. “I don’t ever want to stick another needle in my arm.”