How specialty courts helped suburban woman break the cycle of arrest, conviction, jail
Teena Branch is something of an expert on Cook County's criminal justice system. She should be -- she's been part of it since she first was arrested on charges of theft at age 14.
The 30 years that followed were marked by dozens of arrests (50 according to her estimate, mostly for theft) and some 20 convictions. She served time in jail and the penitentiary. The longest stint was 6½ years. Her most recent arrest was nearly five years ago.
For the Aurora native, the criminal justice system was like a revolving door: arrest, incarceration, release, repeat. That changed on Father's Day 2014, when she was charged with stealing items from a department store at Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall. Through the collaborative efforts of public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers and a judge, she landed in Rolling Meadows' mental health specialty court.
For the first time, Branch -- who said she was physically and sexually abused as a child and later turned to heroin to numb her pain -- felt she mattered.
"I am so much better mentally having gone through the program," said Branch, the oldest of 13 siblings and the mother of three.
She doesn't have her own place or a full-time job (she lives with family members and works part-time at a beauty shop), but she's determined to stay healthy and avoid the "land mines" that in the past have sent her to that dark place that almost consumed her.
"I've fought that place so many times," she said. "That black place where people go? I've been there."
Established for nonviolent felony offenders, Cook County's problem-solving or specialty courts are for veterans, people with mental health issues and individuals struggling with addiction. Similar specialty courts operate elsewhere, including in DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.
Cook County's first drug court was established in 1998 at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. The first mental health court opened there in 2004, and veterans court followed in 2009. The specialty courts subsequently spread to all the suburban districts including Rolling Meadows' Third Municipal District, where veterans and mental health courts have operated since 2011.
On Jan. 22, the Adult Drug Treatment Court, funded by a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, opened in Rolling Meadows, making all specialty courts available in all suburban Cook County districts.
"It's been a long time coming," said Assistant Cook County Public Defender Wendy Schilling, chief of the public defender's office in Rolling Meadows. "To say we don't have a drug problem here in the Northwest suburbs is to bury your head in the sand."
Often, defendants with addiction or mental health issues were "serving life sentences on the installment plan," said Cook County Judge Joseph Cataldo, who presides over Rolling Meadows' bimonthly drug court.
Participating in specialty court programs can help break that cycle and help participants become productive citizens, Cataldo said. "This isn't giving them an easy way out. It's intense. It's difficult. They have to want to do it."
"Some of these people never got a chance," he said. "Now they're getting a chance, and it turns out to be life-changing."
The courts are designed not for first-timers but for repeat offenders who've undergone treatment in the past and might have spent time in jail. The program operates this way: A defendant charged with a nonviolent felony pleads guilty and is sentenced to two years of probation. In exchange, he or she receives treatment, undergoes periodic drug tests, appears twice a month in court, meets regularly with probation officers, performs community service and receives assistance obtaining housing, employment and education.
Since 1998, 4,630 people have participated in Cook County's drug courts. The active caseload is 236 countywide. Another 1,222 have participated in mental health court, which has an active caseload of 118.
Veterans courts have served 484 participants with 76 cases pending. Many participants, like Branch, qualify for more than one specialty court.
"Not every story has a happy ending," said Rolling Meadows Presiding Judge Jill Cerone-Marisie, who made establishing a drug court a priority when she took over in 2017. Since drug courts' inception in Cook County, 41 percent of participants have successfully completed the probation. About 2 percent failed to complete the program for an unrelated problem, according to the office of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans. Nearly 57 percent voluntarily withdrew or failed to complete the program, resulting in the reinstatement of the original criminal charges.
As with all of these non-adversarial, specialty courts, the judge and a variety of others work on behalf of the defendant. They can include prosecutors, defense attorneys, social service and Veterans Affairs representatives, treatment providers, and addiction and mental health experts.
In drug court, clients start by going somewhere to get clean. For many, that's Cook County jail, either because private residential treatment facilities cannot accommodate them or because they cannot afford private treatment, though the federal grant can help, said Cerone-Marisie, who presides over Rolling Meadows' veterans and mental health courts.
"A lot of participants detox in jail," she said.
While specialty courts offer the possibility of recovery, not every eligible defendant elects to participate.
"Many people find it easier to do one or two years in prison than go through the program," Cataldo said.
"The faint of heart don't make it," agreed Evans. "But for those who want to change their lives, this is the best way they can do it."
That's what Branch wanted: to change her life. And she did. Last year, she completed mental health probation which, like all specialty courts, concluded with a graduation ceremony.
"Teena was a phenomenal graduate," Schilling said. "Listening to her story was moving."
When she was 3, Teena Branch says, her father sat her on a hot stove, causing third-degree burns to her thighs and buttocks.
She and her brother, who is 11 months younger, went into foster care, where she says they were abused physically, emotionally and sexually. They ran away, eventually returned to foster care and bounced from one home to another until a relative took them in when Branch was 11 or 12.
"We were muted," she said of the abuse. "When something happens to you at age 5, 7, 9, you think it's your fault."
She says she started drinking cough syrup around age 12. By 17, she was snorting heroin. Two years later, she says, she went to the penitentiary for the first time on a one-year sentence for theft and bail bond violation.
All the times she'd been arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, all the physical examinations she underwent in custody, no one ever asked her about the burns on her body. And Branch never offered an explanation.
Ordered by the court into a drug-treatment program, she beat her addiction in 1995 but continued to steal to support herself. From 2003 to 2007, she worked as a case manager aide for Haymarket Center, an addiction treatment center with facilities in Chicago and Waukegan.
In 2007, she lost a son to gun violence. In quick succession, she moved out of state and was involved in a car accident. Upon returning to Chicago, she was arrested several times. For a while she lived out of her car. On Father's Day 2014, she got arrested in Schaumburg.
Returning to Cook County jail, she spoke with a corrections officer who suggested she'd be a good candidate for mental health court. An assistant public defender told Branch there was no way she'd be admitted and Branch believed her.
Who was going to take a chance on a "40-something, African-American woman, with stints in jail, an arrest record as long as your arm, angry, depressed, misunderstood?" she said.
Moreover, as a recovering addict, she feared taking medication to control her mental illness, which was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I didn't want to backslide," she said.
But through the special court program, she began seeing a psychiatrist and, for the first time, disclosed her childhood abuse. She made progress navigating what she calls the "land mines" of daily life, but worried that when her probation concluded, she'd lose her support group.
Her team, which included Cerone-Marisie, didn't let her give up.
"Judge Marisie is a gem," Branch said. "She'll give you a second chance if she feels that you need one."
Branch took that second chance. Financially, she's is still in a precarious place and housing remains a concern. But she perseveres.
"I believe in me now," she said. "The blueprint I have is to survive, whatever it takes."