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Drug court grads benefit from team approach

December 4, 2017 GMT

It’s rare to see a party in a courtroom, but the cupcakes, chips and juice were set up in room 300 of the Kankakee Court Courthouse for a good reason.

Six new graduates of the county’s drug court were there the morning of Friday, Dec. 1, surrounded by family and friends as they told their stories and reflected on the long process toward recovery.

“One of the things that struck me as we started working through this list of grads is how much this is a community effort, both in the effort of courageous people who stand up and share their difficult stories to the treatment workers,” said Judge Kenneth Leshen, who hears the cases.

Sometimes controversial, drug courts have been part of a shift in the criminal justice system’s response to drug-related crime. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, studies show 75 percent of drug court graduates nationwide remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program.

“Drug courts have grown and the growth of drug courts represents a shift in the criminal justice system and its treatment of the people who go through that system,” said Judge Clark Erickson, who brought the drug court to Kankakee County during his tenure as state’s attorney. “It’s a shift from punishment and jail and the penitentiary to recognizing that a lot of people in the system have drug issues, have alcohol issues, have issues with mental illness.”

When Kankakee County started drug court in the early 90s, it was one of about three countries in Illinois to have a program of that nature. Now, drug courts operate across the state. Participants must be sober, attend treatment sessions and court appearances and have regular outside meetings with a probation officer in order to have their drug-related charges dismissed at the end of the program. The process usually takes between 12 and 18 months.

“At one point, I actually said out loud that I’d rather be in jail than work this program, and when you reach that point where you have to realize you’re afraid of your own sobriety if prison seems like a good option,” said Jessica Lambert, of Bradley, one of the graduates.

Lambert took a year to go through the program, with her mother, Debbie Kane, there at almost every court appearance. During the graduation ceremony, Lambert gave the judge $100 in gift cards her mother had purchased as congratulatory gifts for future graduates.

″(Being in the courtroom) is just something else,” Kane said. “I like the newbies. They’re all pi**ed off. They’re angry. As the weeks go by, it’s amazing to me. They stand taller, they have new haircuts, they dress better.”

Drug court helped the six graduates avoid prison time for various charges, including burglary, possession of paraphernalia and driving-related offenses, but it’s a long path.

“It takes personal commitment,” said Lisa Pearson, a probation officer who has worked with the drug court for three years. “It might start with force from the legal system, but developing a personal commitment to make these changes is what sets successful people apart.”

“For once in my life, I was able to face my issues, my old resentments for the first time,” Lambert said, speaking to the crowd during the graduation ceremony. “Not only did I obtain sobriety, I obtained happiness and peace of mind.”

After she finished telling her story, Lambert. turned to offer Judge Leshen a handshake. He pulled her in for a hug instead.