The first drug court began in 1989 in Miami, offering those with addiction issues an alternative route through—and hopefully out of—the criminal justice system.
Nearly 30 years later, hundreds of judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals are meeting this week in Uptown Normal to chart the future of problem-solving courts in Illinois.
McLean County already has three specialty courts—drug court, recovery court for those with serious mental illnesses, and the new veterans court. Most counties in Illinois have a drug court, though mental health and veterans courts are less common, according to the Illinois Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health and Justice, which tracks problem-solving courts.
One challenge in the coming years will be how to fund them, said Illinois Association of Problem-Solving Courts President Jeff Ford, a judge in Champaign County. Most problem-solving courts were launched using grant money, Ford said, and the communities themselves will have to “step up and help” pay for them if they’re going to continue. That could require taxpayer support.
“These courts, if done correctly, save millions for every county they’re operating in,” Ford said, citing reduced burden on state and local government resources. That includes everything from fewer inmates in state prisons to a lighter load on local law enforcement, plus tax revenue from offenders who re-enter the workforce and resume paying income taxes, Ford said.
Another challenge on the horizon is the growth of synthetic drugs—a broad category of manmade chemical substances. Synthetic cocaine can produce a reaction so severe it appears someone is having a psychotic break, Ford told GLT's Sound Ideas. That makes it hard for a jail or mental health professional to evaluate that person’s needs.
“(Sythentics) are harder to test for, because the drug companies don’t make tests for them unless they become illegal, because then it’s not profitable,” he said.
Ford’s drug court in Champaign County is now 20 years old. He took over traffic court in 1991 and made changes to how DUI offenders were handled—creating a de facto DUI court.
There are now problem-solving courts in all 50 states. New courts have cropped up, including prostitution court, juvenile drug court, and family recovery court, Ford said. The key is to narrow the focus to “high risk, high needs” offenders who participate voluntarily, he said.
“If we put a high-risk (person) with a low-needs person, what we’re going to do is make that low-needs person into a better criminal, because we’ve mixed them together,” Ford said.
The 6th annual problem-solving courts conference runs through Friday at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Uptown Normal. Around 600 people are attending this year. Session topics include medical marijuana, teleservices, and rural problem-solving court resources and innovative ideas.
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