Suburbs awash in drug court success stories

Former addict saved by a growing court alternative in Lake County

Wendy Mabbett's long and arduous journey to overcome decades of cocaine and heroin addiction came to a head in a Lake County courtroom.

The Beach Park woman had gone through numerous drug treatment programs but, like many addicts, often relapsed. She committed various crimes to feed her habit and had been incarcerated more times than she wants to discuss.

“It was just an awful ride,” the 49-year-old recalls.

In 2005, Mabbett was unemployed, estranged from her family and facing another prison sentence for retail theft.

But unlike the previous times she hit rock bottom, Mabbett was given the option of participating in drug court, an alternative sentencing program that allows nonviolent offenders dealing with substance addiction to stay out of prison by getting treatment. The program includes counseling, therapy, random drug testing, regular court appearances and intensive monitoring.

Mabbett became one of the first graduates of Lake County's drug court in 2008. She hasn't used drugs or alcohol since the day of her arrest more than six years ago.

It's the kind of happy ending for defendants that McHenry County officials are hoping to achieve now that McHenry has joined Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties in offering some form of a drug court.

“As long as we follow the plan that we've put in place, it will make a difference,” said Dan Wallis, McHenry's 22nd Judicial Circuit trial court administrator. “There will be failures. I am a realist. But I have seen firsthand what happens with these programs. I have seen people who have succeeded. I have seen parents get their children back.”

Making the move

McHenry County's drug court started in December when a Woodstock man was accepted into the fledging program.

Since 2009, all 23 of Illinois' judicial circuits have been required to have drug courts. McHenry officials stress they were talking about establishing a drug court long before the state law was changed.

Wallis said it was a mountain of research that convinced McHenry officials that drug courts are necessary.

At least half of the people sentenced to prison are clinically addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to Wallis. He said that a majority of those individuals return to using drugs and alcohol once they are released.

“The bottom line is that prison doesn't fix the substance abuse,” he said.

A federal grant of nearly $306,000 will help pay for most of McHenry's program for the next three years. The money will cover equipment, drug testing and the salary of a full-time probation officer.

To be eligible, a defendant must be substance-dependent and charged with a nonviolent felony, such as drug possession, residential burglary or retail theft.

Wallis said the ideal drug court candidate for McHenry is the person “nobody wants to deal with” because he or she has a long history of drug use or criminal behavior.

“It's the person that's easier just to lock up,” he said.

The reason is because many resources are needed to help a drug court participant — from attorneys and probation staff to residential treatment centers and halfway houses.

“If you're going to invest those kinds of resources into somebody,” Wallis said, “you need to target those who will provide the biggest return.”

Getting results

So, are other collar counties getting a decent return on their investments?

“Absolutely,” says Carrie Thomas, the coordinator of Kane County Drug Rehabilitation Court. Since Kane's adult drug court started in 2000, about 635 people have “graduated” from the program.

In order to graduate, a defendant must be in Kane's program for a minimum of 30 months, successfully complete three different phases of treatment, be employed or attending school, and have at least one year of sobriety immediately prior to graduation.

“Going through drug court, which is a very intense program, makes them address their issues,” Thomas said.

A recidivism study showed the effort was worth it: Between 2002 and 2007, 80 percent of the 519 graduates during that period had no further criminal record.

DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said research shows that drug courts save counties money in the long-term because it's cheaper to send drug addicts to treatment than it is to send them to prison.

“For drug addicts who are committing crimes to support their habit, we can send them to prison,” he said. “But you don't treat the underlying problem. So they may go to prison for a year or two years, We spend about $23,000 a year incarcerating them. And then when they get out, nothing has changed, and they commit the same crime over and over again.”

Drug court gives those nonviolent drug-addicted offenders an opportunity to correct their addiction and lead a sober life.

“If you can get them off drugs, they are not, in theory, going to commit more crimes,” Berlin said. “And when that happens, that's a win-win for everybody.”

Between July 2002 and September 2011, DuPage accepted 584 people into its drug court. Of those individuals, 225 graduated after serving a minimum of two years in the program and having at least one full year of sobriety before graduation.

Berlin said the success of DuPage's main drug court program inspired officials in 2009 to create a “Track 2” version for defendants who aren't facing prison time for the crimes they committed but want the help drug court provides.

“They may not be going to to prison if they're convicted,” he said. “However, they have a drug problem, and they want treatment.”

Motivation to succeed

Anthony Johnson didn't always follow the rules when he first entered Kane County's program to avoid prison on a drug possession charge.

“I struggled a bit because I continued to drink and stuff like that,” the 34-year-old Aurora resident said.

Authorities say people can get kicked out of drug court for a variety of reasons, such as getting a new criminal charge or refusing to participate in treatment. But failing a random drug test or a Breathalyzer doesn't get someone removed.

Steve Fabbri, Lake County's assistant director of adult probation services, said officials recognize that drug court participants are going to have setbacks.

“We understand that relapse is a part of recovery,” Fabbri said. “So we work with them to resolve the things going on in their lives that contributed to it.”

Among the large number of people working with drug court participants are the judges. They're key because they learn the history of each defendant, understand the problems offenders are facing and become a source of support.

“You can see that praise from a judge really has an impact on people who have been knocked around a lot in life,” Fabbri said.

Kane's presiding drug court judge says her role is very different from that of a judge in a regular criminal courtroom.

“One of the big differences is working with people on a much more personal basis and seeing their progress week by week,” Kane County Judge Patricia Piper Golden said. “It's wonderful to work with them and to see the changes that they go through.”

In Johnson's case, Kane officials issued sanctions for each infraction he committed before eventually threatening to send him to a residential treatment facility.

Realizing that he had “a lot to lose,” Johnson said he finally started doing what he was supposed to do.

“Once I wanted to get better, I realized how much of my life I had wasted and how bad I really was,” he said. “Every day became a learning experience about myself.”

Johnson graduated in April from Kane's drug court and has been clean and sober for two years.

On the other side

As one of 25 individuals to graduate from Lake County's drug court, Mabbett says she's convinced the program changed her life. Now she's trying to help others.

Mabbett, who has earned an associate degree in addictive disorders and is seeking a bachelor's degree, works as an alcohol and drug counselor at Lake County Health Department's Addictions Treatment Program in Waukegan. She also works at Bridge House, a halfway recovery home in Waukegan that's operated by Nicasa.

Most importantly, she has repaired the relationships in her life.

“I'm reunited with my husband,” Mabbett said. “I'm hands-on with my daughter, who is 26 now. My entire family is in my life again, and it's never been better.”

And where would she be without drug court?

Without hesitation, she says, “Prison or dead.”

McHenry County opens drug rehabilitation court

  Wendy Mabbett overcame “an awful ride” of addiction and crime, and now works as an alcohol and drug counselor in the Lake County Health Department. She was one of the first graduates of the county’s drug court — an alternative sentencing program that promotes rehabilitation over incarceration. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Once an addict, Wendy Mabbett now counsels people with drug problems. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.