The Meth Mess: Drug court tries to steer users in right direction

Judge William Mays, right, looks on as Heather Wright accepts a plaque after graduating from the Adams County Drug Court program on June 20. (H-W File Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Jan. 16, 2014 8:05 am Updated: Jan. 26, 2015 1:55 pm
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

To incarcerate or rehabilitate?

That’s the big question asked by people who work inside the criminal justice system when dealing with the mountain of methamphetamine cases working their way through Adams County Circuit Court.

The answer isn’t an easy one.

“What you have in the criminal justice system is the revolving door,” Adams County State’s Attorney Jon Barnard said. “The tenacity of this poison, and it is poison when you look at the ingredients, is best illustrated by the fact that people who are arrested for this and bond out will go right back out of the courthouse and cook more meth.

“They are on bond for an offense for which if they are convicted, they are likely going to prison. Wouldn’t we think that a rational person would want to stay out of trouble under those circumstances? Sure we would. Not when you’re under the influence of meth. All you think about is getting more meth. I can’t count for you how many people we have arrested and charged with meth-related charges who at the time of their arrest were already on bond for committing a meth-related offense. That tells you everything you need to know about the tenacity of methamphetamine.

“The sad reality of our experience in the criminal justice system is that I would easily identify people who are in prison for methamphetamine-related offenses as the single most likely population to re-offend once they get out. They re-offend all too often with frightening speed.”

To help stem that tide, Barnard helped institute a drug court program in Adams County in 2006.

Instead of being sent to prison, drug court members go through an intense form of probation for 30 months. Drug court includes weekly group sessions and constant monitoring for drug use, especially during the first of three phases that normally take almost two years to complete.

Sixty-two people have successfully completed the program.

Robin Minor, a 2010 drug court graduate, is one of those who was in the program and found it helpful in not only keeping her out of prison but kicking her drug habit.

“Thank God for the drug court program,” Minor said. “I’d be sitting in prison. I’d still be an addict. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to change my life. I did a treatment (program) in prison. There wasn’t anybody serious about it, and maybe at that time, I wasn’t serious about it as well.”

Trying to rehabilitate a drug user costs much less than having the person sit in a cell furnished by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, it cost Illinois taxpayers $38,268 per prisoner in 2010. Meanwhile, Quincy-based Recovery Resources says it costs about $3,600 for its residential program.

Those fortunate enough to be in the drug court program must be serious about their efforts to rehabilitate. Because it’s an alternative to going to prison, the program gets plenty of requests from offenders. About two dozen people are in the program now, and more than three times that number try to get into the program.

An offender eligible to receive probation is eligible for drug court. From there, a group consisting of Judge William Mays and six representatives from law enforcement agencies and rehabilitation services fields determine who would make a good drug court participant. They meet every Thursday morning to talk about possible candidates and to see how those currently in the program are faring.

Drug court participants must do two urinalysis tests a week and get involved in treatment programs. Those who try to rehabilitate the users, as well as the users themselves, are certain that drug court is the better option than prison. Those who wind up going to prison, Minor said, only come back into society as smarter, craftier users.

“Sticking them in prison is like a Betty Crocker cookbook,” Minor said. “They’re just learning different ways, better ways, shorter ways, faster ways to cook the dope. Swapping recipes is what they’re doing in prison.”

Some say the chances for the users to get clean are much better in a structured program like the drug court than it is in prison.

“I’m a strong believer in drug court,” said Gail Westerhoff, a former counselor at Recovery Resources. “These are people who would have been going to prison, but because of drug court, they are given a second chance. If they don’t complete drug court, they are still resentenced on that same charge and can go to prison.

“Of the people who go to prison, I think the recidivism rate is 85 percent. It’s light years higher (than those who complete drug court).”

Rick, not his real name, is a recent drug court graduate who was thankful for the help he received in the program.

“It really got me focused,” he said. “I got focused on the day and the things I needed to do to stay compliant in that form of probation. The deterrent was to stay out of prison.”

Research using Adams County Court records shows that 12 of the 62 drug court graduates had been caught on new charges in Adams County — a 19.4 percent recidivism rate. Eight of those people were sent to the Illinois Department of Corrections, two had cases dropped, one was given a conditional discharge and two have charges pending.

“The only way to get them out of the system is to treat the disease, and the disease is the addiction,” Westerhoff said. “Sending someone to prison isn’t treating the disease. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go to prison.

“Some people aren’t interested in changing their lives. If that’s the case, we have to keep the community safe. It’s always the best choice to give somebody the chance to change. If we send someone to prison, all they’re going to do is learn how to make it better and without getting caught. They are not going to learn skills to change their lives.”

The Adams County Drug Court program suffered a highly publicized setback in April. John Grotts, the county’s probation representative for the program, was arrested on drug charges at his home in Ursa. He was found to be living with drug court graduate Devin Lawton, 36.

Lawton was sentenced to seven years in prison after she pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of meth and unlawful possession of meth precursors. Grotts pleaded guilty to federal charges of maintaining a drug-involved premises. He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 24 in Springfield, Ill.

The program stopped accepting people for a brief period after Grotts’ arrest on April 24. He was fired from his position on May 9. Two graduation ceremonies have typically been held each year, but only one was held this year.

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