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Column

Kenneally: Overdose deaths drop in McHenry County, host of factors create reduction

State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally talks about JoAnn Cunningham's plea of guilty during a press conference inside the State's Attorney's office on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, in Woodstock.  Cunningham could face a minimum of 20 years to 60 years in prison for the murder of her 5-year-old, AJ Freund.
State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally talks about JoAnn Cunningham's plea of guilty during a press conference inside the State's Attorney's office on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, in Woodstock. Cunningham could face a minimum of 20 years to 60 years in prison for the murder of her 5-year-old, AJ Freund.

Through the extraordinary and collaborative work of law enforcement, treatment providers, the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition, the Mental Health Board and Northwestern Medicine, the number of overdose-related deaths have been reduced precipitously to levels not seen since before the onset of the opioid epidemic.

To fully appreciate how remarkable this turnabout has been in terms of lives saved, one must compare our statistics with those of the other collar counties.             

In Kane County, overdose deaths increased from 67 in 2017 to 68 in 2018 to 76 in 2019. In Will County, overdose deaths increased from 117 in 2017 to 121 in 2018. Through November 2019, Will County already had exceeded its 2018 numbers, having suffered 122 overdose deaths. 

In Lake County, overdose deaths increased from 85 in 2017 to 98 in 2018. Through October 2019, Lake County was on pace to match its 2018 numbers, having already suffered 71 overdose deaths. In DuPage County, overdose deaths increased from 108 in 2017 to 110 in 2018. For 2019, DuPage County already has recorded 92 overdose deaths with 28 investigations still pending.

There is no silver bullet in this desperate fight that is far from over. 

McHenry County’s recent success proceeds from a balanced approach and a recognition that both recovery services and, yes, the penal system have a role. From a recovery standpoint, we have built up a recovery infrastructure that many would not have thought possible a few years ago. From the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office starting Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the jail to the Way Out Program, which provides access to treatment through most police departments, we have significantly expanded intervention points to those who desire treatment.             

McHenry County’s Adult Drug Court, an intensive judicial supervision and treatment program that serves as an alternative to prison for defendants struggling with substance abuse, has helped more than 100 defendants recover and boasts a recidivism rate of only 15%. Building upon this success, McHenry County launched Adult DUI Court in 2019, the first of its kind in the state, for felony DUI offenders struggling with alcohol abuse. DUI Court is modeled after Drug Court in terms of its rigorous testing, supervision and treatment requirements. Like Drug Court, it is expected to reduce rates of DUI recidivism and save money by diverting offenders away from prison.  

Lastly, and perhaps most transformative, New Directions – having worked in concert with the Mental Health Board and the State’s Attorney’s Office – will be launching a 30-plus bed recovery residence in the county by year’s end. This first-of-its-kind facility will be home to clients who will follow a three- to four-month structured program that, in addition to addressing the underlying substance abuse issue, will help restore that person into the fabric of the community. Specifically, clients will be assisted with such things as job placement, obtaining a primary care physician and health insurance, setting up bank accounts and reestablishing relationships with family. The program is not insurance based. Rather, clients are expected to pay their own way through after obtaining employment, which makes treatment accessible to anyone.       

Despite this heartening expansion of treatment services, it is undeniable that exceptional police work and law enforcement’s commitment to painstakingly investigating every overdose death in this county has been impactful. Drug-induced homicide is a serious, Class X offense that can be used to target and imprison dealers for at least six years and up to 30 years if the drugs they distribute, namely fentanyl and heroin, cause death.              

Since late 2017, the State’s Attorney’s Office has charged more than 40 dealers with drug-induced homicide, more than any other county in Illinois by far. Many counties, most notably Cook, rarely investigate or prosecute this charge, perhaps accepting the conventional reasoning that it would not be worthwhile because a user’s voluntary ingestion of drugs removes any allocation of responsibility to the dealer. McHenry County’s overdose statistics prove otherwise and bear witness to how faithful use of this charge can reduce supply, use, and mortality.             

2019 also marked the first year in nearly a decade that a doctor was charged criminally in McHenry County for allegedly not prescribing in good faith. Gallingly, and despite the well-documented link between prescribed opioid medications and the opioid epidemic, many doctors continue to prescribe far too many pills, for far too long, and without reasonable efforts to ensure medications are not being abused or diverted. A significant share of the 37 overdose deaths last year resulted from or were hastened by “medicine” that had been prescribed to the decedent by a doctor – usually benzodiazepines, opioids, or a combination of both. We regard this as unacceptable. In 2020, we at the State’s Attorney’s Office intend to continue to monitor prescription drug-related overdose deaths for any irregularities and use all means at our disposal to redress wrongdoing.

• Patrick Kenneally is the McHenry County State’s Attorney.

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