Lyons: Drug courts offer sober approach to drug abuse

McHenry County's second specialty court reached a milestone this week, graduating its first group of offenders who successfully completed drug court as an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system.

While it took a painfully long time to get this program up and running, congratulations are in order for all who set the program up and keep it going from McHenry County Special Courts Coordinator Scott Block, McHenry County Judge Charles Weech, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law enforcement personnel, probation officers, counselors and participants.

Anyone paying attention knows that there's no winning a $51 billion annual war on drugs, but there are better approaches to dealing with addiction. Putting people in jail and prison because of drug use is a waste of time, money and resources.

One extreme says legalizing drugs is the answer. If that's your position, ask yourself one more question: The answer to what?

It might resolve inner-city issues of violence over drug trafficking and horrific drug-war violence in Mexico, but legalizing drugs isn't going to have any positive effects in places such as McHenry County.

Is heroin somehow going to gain magical powers, providing happiness to families everywhere if it's legal? Will crack cocaine be revealed as the real secret to career success.

Of course not. Drug addiction is a major societal problem with an annual treatment cost of $193 billion each year in crime, lost productivity and health-care costs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Whether illicit drugs were illegal or not, individual lives, families, even neighborhoods would continue to be destroyed. The only real difference would be that some police officers and criminal defense lawyers would have to find something else to do with their time.

Just look at the numbers locally. According to Chelsea McDougall's Northwest Herald story, 40 of the current McHenry County Drug Court participants are heroin addicts.

Heroin possession is obviously and appropriately a crime, but heroin addiction is a disease and a social problem. True, it's not like some other diseases in the sense that the afflicted person made a terrible decision and broke the law when making that decision.

But how is sitting for a few weeks, months or, in rare cases, years going to help matters? Other than out of sight out of mind, it doesn't. Incarceration is also a ridiculously expensive option in overcrowded prisons and jails.

Instead of spending all of their time sitting with criminals, drug court participants try to get back to their lives without using and with frequent monitoring, counseling and a vested interest in turning themselves around. It's an absolute possibility for drug addicts to get clean and lead quite productive lives.

In 2013, it's ignorant to believe that drug addicts should simply be locked up for as long as possible. There are about 2,700 drug courts across the country compared to about 1,500 in 2011.

There's one reason for the growth: Drug courts work.

National statistics show that 75 percent of graduates from drug court programs are not charged with new crimes for at least two years after graduating, according to the National Association of Drug Court professionals. And without court ordered treatment, more than 70 percent of drug abusers prematurely drop out of treatment.

Graduating from failed methods to drug court is a milestone we can all celebrate.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH. 

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