Letters to the Editor

Guest View: A Will County program breaking the cycle of crime

Kristin Love was 16 when she first tried heroin at a party. She kept her addiction a secret for six years, until a drug bust led to her arrest in a McDonald’s parking lot.

“My parents, my family, my significant other, nobody knew,” said Love, now 27. “They might have had suspicions, but nobody knew until I called them from jail.”

This experience has become all too common in Illinois. The state Criminal Justice Information Authority reports that nearly 13,000 inmates in Illinois’ prison system needed substance abuse treatment services during fiscal 2014. The Illinois State Crime Commission describes heroin use as an epidemic.

One way to curb the heroin problem in Illinois is to change the way people who commit drug-related crimes are scrutinized. And Illinois doesn’t have to look far for ideas. In the Joliet area, a drug court program has found a way to break this cycle of crime and addiction at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

Men and women convicted of crimes related to substance abuse in Will County are eligible for drug court — an 18-month program that trades prison time and a felony record for treatment, counseling and support. Love is one of the many individuals who has been through this program.

Love said she flourished in the drug-court program, in which she received treatment, did volunteer work, returned to school and landed a job  —  her first.

“I think the longer I did those things, the more I built better feelings about myself  —  more confidence  —  and drugs weren’t so important anymore,” she said.

Since the program was launched 15 years ago, the Will County State’s Attorney’s office has shepherded hundreds of addicts through it. The results are astounding.

Less than 10 percent of graduates have reoffended, according to the office. But statewide, 45 percent of all offenders return to life behind bars within three years of release — each instance of recidivism costing taxpayers more than $40,000 in court, arrest and prison costs, according to research by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.

The cost of putting more than 300 graduates through Will County’s drug-court program? About $3,000 each.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Corrections pays nearly $22,000 in direct costs per inmate .  Add up employee health care, benefits, pensions and capital expenses, and the cost per inmate is nearly $40,000.

Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow made international headlines in 2012 for obtaining a murder conviction against former Chicago-area police officer Drew Peterson. He’s also a champion of this type of alternative sentencing, overseeing the Will County mental health court, veterans court and drug court.

“We found a tool that works and we’re using it aggressively, ” Glasgow said. “Because of the heroin problem the way it is,” he said, “it’s critical that these individuals get into drug court not just to avoid prison, not just to avoid a felony conviction, but to stay alive.”

These are not hollow words from Glasgow. He counts Love as one of his employees.

Without a felony on her record, Love was able to pursue legal studies after graduating from drug court, and now works as a legal secretary for the very people who prosecuted her for drug possession  —  in the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Glasgow came to her interview.

“Finding out … I was getting the job, I think I cried,” Love said. “It was one of my favorite days.”

These days, Springfield is mired in gridlock. Solutions to some of the state’s most pressing problems are staring lawmakers in the face, yet inaction subsists.

But there’s been a glimmer of hope in the arena of criminal justice reform. Democrats and Republicans came together last year to enact some reforms — and they should do so again now.

Of the nearly 13,000 inmates deemed in need of treatment for substance abuse during fiscal year 2014, only half received it. It’s time for Illinois to invest in the state’s more than 60 drug courts. There are upfront costs, but the evidence is clear: this model can dramatically reduce recidivism, ultimately saving scarce taxpayer dollars and, more importantly, putting thousands more Illinoisans on a path to a better life.

Keeping things the same, Glasgow says, is “going to bankrupt us.”

“I think we see that,” he said. “Compassion is the key to turning the corner.”