From crime to condition: Examining how Illinois handles drug offenses

(Find Rehab Centers / CC BY 2.0)
Published: Mar. 7, 2022 at 9:31 AM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - For decades, jail time and drug charges have often been the way drug addiction is handled in the Illinois criminal justice system.

The reason why is complicated, stemming from systemic racism and a lack of understanding around drug addiction.

“Drug addiction is scary, it scares us,” said Heidi Muller, Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. “Everybody wants to help people who are addicted to substances, and I think we just didn’t know what else to do.”

“Generally speaking, it’s not a wish for harm, it’s just not knowing what the research says about what really works,” she continued.

The IDJJ is currently trying to focus on an approach that would lessen drug penalties and emphasize treatment. While their work focuses mostly on juveniles, the agency said both adults and children trying to recover from substance abuse need rehabilitation without criminalizing their recovery. The average person looking to achieve sobriety will relapse an average of seven times before they are successful according to the department.

Criminalizing, IDJJ Chief of Intergovernmental Affairs Michelle Jenkins said, “shows them they don’t have a safe space to say ‘Hey, I messed up, I had a weak moment,’ that they don’t have the space to make mistakes like we all do.”

‘Rock bottom’

Sen. Steve McClure (R-Springfield) is a proponent of keeping similar penalties for drug offenses. He believes addiction is a disease. However, he said that sometimes the harsh reality of a jail cell may break someone from their addiction.

“I’ve seen people have their lives saved by being taken to jail for a few days,” McClure said. “I’ve seen people that would have died had they been on the streets, been arrested for the sole purpose of trying to get them to clean up and not kill themselves.”

He is a strong advocate of Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities probation, a system that will clear a person’s criminal record if they go through court-mandated drug treatments, but he believes the programs need to be better funded in certain areas like his district of Springfield.

IDJJ is a supporter of these TASC programs as well. One of their bills, re-referred to the House Rules Committee, focused on what happens when relapse occurs even while one is a part of the court-mandated programs. The bill aimed to remove penalties for repeated drug possession charges in juvenile cases.

“In almost any situation where a youth is committed to our care because of their relapse, it is absolutely the wrong decision,” Jenkins said.

The court-mandated programs are useful, they said, in addition to other community-based programs.

“We’re suggesting there are additional programs out there or available that would be more useful,” she continued. “The alternative response would be for youth to instead of when they relapse being committed to IDJJ, but the actual treatment their receiving being enhanced.”

Community-based treatment

When focusing on treatment plans for those recovering from drug addiction, IDJJ officials said they find it most helpful to keep the person recovering in their community.

“It creates a certain level of security and safety, in the same way any of us feel more safe when we know who’s around us,” Jenkins said.

When talking about rehab, it’s easy to imagine the facilities celebrities check into or the round table group therapy on TV. Those aren’t too far from the truth, IDJJ said, but typically youth will use more moderate forms of intervention like group and personal therapy.

A live-in rehab facility may be helpful in that it is entirely focused on breaking the addiction, but it removes the patient from their community and support system.

“You want your responses to be ones that are, first of all, specific to the exact issue you’re trying to address,” Jenkins said. “We are a safe space for them and we can help them get through this issue and this problem.”

Jenkins calls it a new approach to drug addiction. While these programs have always existed, there’s a new emphasis on a compassionate approach to addiction recovery, recognizing that relapse and falling off the way to sobriety are natural parts of the process.

“These resources all exist, there’s a lot of community-based resources,” Muller said. “There are so many different alternatives to incarceration... those alternatives always work better if your goal is to get somebody to recover from substance abuse. Incarceration always works worse.”

Systemic Racism

Though opioid and hard-drug-riddled entertainment may lead one to believe otherwise, the IDJJ said most of the children they help treat come to them because of marijuana or alcohol use. The vast majority use cannabis, a smaller amount with alcohol and an even smaller frequency of meth, which they treat differently.

There is an opioid epidemic, Muller said, but that drug often gets the recovery-based treatment first without the child being directed to IDJJ. She said that drug tends to be separated from criminalization.

“We need to be honest that part of criminalization of substance abuse and drug abuse is rooted in systemic racism,” Muller said. “I think the perception is that’s [opioids are a] white kid’s issue and while kids are viewed as ill and if you’re a black kid who’s struggling with marijuana use disorder, you’re criminalized.”

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