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posted: 1/4/2010 12:01 AM

With extension granted, McHenry Co. officials taking time on drug court

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McHenry County court officials received a two-year extension in December on a state deadline to have a special drug court up and running to deal with criminals whose actions are motivated by their addictions.

It appears they plan on using all of the extra time.

With the waiver in hand, court officials say they would rather be sure they get the program right - even if it takes to 2012 - than rush to install an ultimately flawed or ineffective program as quickly as possible.

"We thought instead of jumping into it, let's make sure we have a program that makes sense for our community and makes sense for our system in the best way possible," said Scott Block, Mental Health Court coordinator for the 22nd Judicial Circuit.

To that end, officials have organized a Drug Court Task Force, which is planning a full-day session in February, featuring a presentation from Douglas Marlowe, one of the nation's leading experts on drug courts.

The session will help the task force answer key questions about how the county's drug court will operate, who will oversee it and who would be eligible to participate, Court Administrator Dan Wallis said.

"If we opened this right now, we could probably have about 300 participants within a month," he said. "There's that much of a need, we believe."

Which, officials say, makes it all the more important to start with an effective program.

"We want to be a model for the country, so we're going to take our time to get it right," Wallis said.

The state legislature last year passed an amendment to the Drug Court Treatment Act that made the courts a requirement, and not just an option, for all of the state's 22 judicial circuits by Jan. 1. But the legislation included a clause allowing a judge to give a circuit a reprieve of up to two years if it can show it lacks resources and is undergoing financial hardship.

McHenry County seized upon that opportunity in December, getting a county judge to grant a full two-year extension.

The county is the only collar county affected by the legislation. Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties already have some form of a drug court, most of them established five or more years ago.

The courts aim to offer nonviolent offenders a chance to avoid criminal conviction or imprisonment by participating in substance abuse treatment and an intensive monitoring program.

A successful program, Wallis said, could significantly decrease crime and its costs - financial and otherwise - in the county.

"Typically, drug addicts have the highest rate of recidivism of anyone in the criminal justice system, about 70 percent," he said. "If we can drive that down to 30 percent, that's a huge impact."