Task force expands DuPage's response to opioid crisis
A new specialty court for first-time drug offenders is among the ways DuPage County has expanded its effort to combat the opioid crisis over the past year.
The Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education Taskforce, or HOPE, was created last April to replace the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin. The task force -- a joint operation of the county board and county health department -- assesses opioid use in DuPage and recommends policies, initiatives and programs to battle the epidemic.
Task force members, including co-chairmen Greg Hart and Dr. Lanny Wilson, recently attended a county board meeting to talk about the work they've been doing.
"All of us are probably only one degree of separation away from someone who has been directly impacted" by opioids, said Hart, who is a county board member. "So we have our work cut out for us."
But in addition to finding ways to expand existing programs such as the DuPage Narcan Program, Hart said the county is evolving to address the most critical components of the heroin epidemic.
One new program started in September is a court for first-time drug offenders.
The First Offender Call Unified for Success program, or FOCUS, complements DuPage's existing drug court, which targets individuals who have long-term addiction and multiple interactions with the criminal justice system.
Unlike drug court, the FOCUS court is for individuals who qualify for first-offender drug probation.
"The whole idea is that these offenders get specialized treatment," State's Attorney Robert Berlin said.
Once the offenders get treatment and are "on the right path," Berlin said their criminal cases will be dismissed and expunged. That means nothing is preventing the individuals from being productive citizens in society, he said.
FOCUS court participants are closely monitored by a judge and receive services, including treatment, counseling and drug testing.
As of last week, there were 499 cases pending in the FOCUS courtroom.
"By far, it has become the busiest courtroom in this county," Berlin said.
Karen Ayala, executive director of the health department, said another pilot project aims to more effectively link individuals into treatment services when they are looking for help.
The sheriff's office, for example, has provided funding to have a re-entry specialist at the jail. "The idea is to reduce recidivism within the criminal justice system and to deal with the individual's issues in a supportive and holistic way," Ayala said.
There's also continued prevention and education efforts.
"We realize that the most effective way to deal with this epidemic is to extinguish the use of drugs within our community," Ayala said.
That work includes educating young people and campaigns to reduce stigma.
In 2018, DuPage recorded 98 confirmed opioid-related deaths, according to the coroner's office.
Task force co-chairman Wilson, who is vice president of the health department board, says that's too many deaths "because this is a preventable problem."
"Our goal is to make DuPage County the county where you are least likely to die of a substance abuse overdose," Wilson said. "Together we can do this."