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McLean County Drug Court Pipeline Slows Amid Pandemic

McLean County Law and Justice Center
Progams of intensive services designed to reduce the burden on jails and prisons and to help offenders to stabilize their lives are getting less use in McLean County during the pandemic.

The pandemic has slowed programs in McLean County that help keep people out of prison and the county jail.

Michael Donavan, the county's court services director, said recovery court and drug court usually offer intensive therapy and other services, but they are not seeing as much use right now.

"Referrals have been down this year because of COVID, over a 40% reduction in the referral rate. A lot of it has to do with the court cases that had stalled for a number of months," said Donovan.

Donovan recently told the county board's Health Committee that counseling and other programs offered to drug and recovery court participants also are not as robust right now because they are not happening, or are online because of the pandemic.

"We're going to feel it more in 2021 than last year because all these people were in the program before COVID started," he said. "Now referrals are down 40% and there are fewer bodies in the program and fewer people will be coming in during the next few months." 

Donovan said drug and recovery courts could even see a budget surplus for the fiscal year.

That's not necessarily a good thing because the courts help keep people out of prison and the health care system. Specialty court graduates also commit fewer repeat crimes.

Donavan said during the last fiscal year reporting period, experts estimate a $1.5 million cost avoidance from the two court programs because people who complete the program don't go to jail or prison, and are far less likely to commit more crimes.

McLean County does not see much of that savings because the prison system and health care institutions do not reimburse the county for costs avoided, but the overall societal cost is lower because of the programs.

Recently, newly-retired McLean County Circuit Judge Scott Drazewski told WGLT the founding of drug court was a highlight of his two decades on the bench. Drazewski said the program continues to have a lot of success, but is always changing. He said sometimes good ideas turn out to be bad, such as pairing low -risk drug users with high-risk ones in help programs.

"You would think that would help them. Well, what you find is that (the) low-risk person gravitates to become a high-risk person because they learn from the high-risk individual how to do things, and not good things," said Drazewski, adding new drug fashions require changes in therapies from cocaine and heroin to meth, bath salts, and synthetic opioids.

Drazewski said drug court adds to the very few options addicts usually have, saying, "They can be incarcerated, institutionalized, or in the ground."

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.