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Drug program cuts threaten public safety: judges

Friday, June 26, 2009
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Jerry Crimmins

The chief judge of Cook County and several judges at Criminal Courts have decried state budget cuts in treatment programs for addicts in the court system.

The judges say such cuts will expand populations of state prisons and the County Jail and harm the safety of the public.

Moreover, the loss of the treatment option for non-violent addicts will mean their cases will take longer to dispose of and clog the dockets, several judges say.

"A considerable strain upon the court system will likely result,'' stated Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans in a letter sent this week to state leaders.

Evans sent his letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton, and Michael J. Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House. Evans "respectfully'' objected to cuts in state funding for substance abuse treatment scheduled to go into effect July 1.

"If an abrupt stop to these services occurs on July 1,'' Evans added, "much needed support for and supervision of at risk offenders may end, and the judiciary will be left without alternatives for them.

"My concerns also include a possible compromising of public safety.''

Modern drug treatment programs are "an effective way of reducing recidivism,'' said Dennis J. Porter, supervising associate judge at Criminal Courts.

Without the treatment and rehabilitation option, many addicts who might have been helped will resume addiction and crime to support their habits upon release from jail or prison, said Associate Judge Marcus R. Salone.

"They will just be a burden to the courts, our budget, and ultimately the safety of the people,'' Salone said.

"They will be breaking into cars, stealing radios, breaking into box cars, shoplifting — and unfortunately, having physical confrontations in search of some funds,'' by which Salone said he meant robberies of all sorts.

Some drug treatment providers have already stopped accepting new cases.

Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, or TASC, which last year diverted 25,000 people from the justice system into treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, has "closed intake,'' said Pamela Rodriguez, executive vice president of the organization.

"We received a letter from the [Illinois] Department of Human Services that says our funding was cut 75 percent,'' she said.

TASC told Criminal Courts judges in Cook County "to stop making referrals,'' Rodriguez said.

TASC placed its staff on furlough until July 16 to see whether the state legislature and the governor revisit the budget and restore funds to TASC.

TASC did say it will place names of potential clients who are criminal defendants on a waiting list although it won't be able to evaluate them for now.

For the present, TASC has asked the judges to allow a continuance of at least two months for any defendant who is put on the waiting list who is free on bond and 45 days for any defendant who is in custody.

There will be "a snowball effect on jail crowding and disposition of cases,'' said Circuit Judge Joseph G. Kazmierski Jr. at Criminal Courts.

And if the treatment option is lost, this will have "a dramatic effect on the community at large,'' Kazmierski said, including loss of opportunity to turn some addicts "into productive people in our community.''

Also, if residential treatment programs for non-violent offenders who are addicts are no longer an option, Kazmierski said, "I may not give them probation.…They may be going to prison.… increasing the cost to the state as a whole.''

Judges interviewed said the cost to the state of each new prison inmate was $20,000 to $22,000 a year.

"Our jails will get bigger and fuller,'' Kazmierski predicted.

Salone pointed out that under state law, 20 ILCS 301/40-5, non-violent criminal offenders who are addicts but who are not drug dealers have the right to "elect treatment under the supervision of a licensed program.''

Some defendants may still insist on this right, he said, meaning their cases will be dragged out on court dockets.

Other eligible defendants, because of the difficulty getting into treatment programs due to budget cuts, may elect to plead guilty, take their punishment, then return to the streets and resume their former behavior.

Rodriguez of TASC said, "We're not giving up the fight.…We are hoping there will be some improvement in that final [state] budget, maybe as soon as June 30."

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