URBANA — Six men and two women who have a total of 22 sentences to prison in their past are on track to graduate from Champaign County Drug Court Monday.
"The Department of Corrections cost is just the tip of the iceberg," Judge Jeff Ford said of the savings to be gained from their success.
"Instead of being reintegrated, we're training them how to live drug-free, get jobs and get their families back together. That doesn't happen in DOC," said Ford, who's overseen drug court since its inception in 1999.
Monday's graduating class at the Urbana Civic Center brings to 174 the number of repeat offenders whose crimes, fueled by alcohol and drug abuse, have been able to remain sober and crime-free for at least one year.
They are members of the 25th graduating class.
"Their average stay (in the program) is 17 3/4 months. Their prior convictions include five ordinance violations, 54 petty offenses, 25 misdemeanors, and 34 felonies," Ford said.
"Since they started drug court, nothing — not a dog running at large, not a seat belt ticket, nothing," Ford said.
And of the group, which ranges in age from 27 to 54 years old, they average about 14 years of substance abuse.
Ford said for the last four years, the graduation rate for the program is about 40 percent of those eligible, up from the previous rate of 33 percent the program had been at for several years.
In business since 1999, the program is starting to take on more of a professional look of late. An infusion of federal funds about a year ago helped with that.
A $200,000 grant enabled drug court to hire a full-time coordinator and pay one-quarter of a sheriff's deputy's salary.
Del Ryan, a retired educator and long-time drug court volunteer, was hired as coordinator in late October. He's been on the service club circuit making speeches about what drug court does for its clients and what clients can do for the community.
He also helped develop a slick tri-fold brochure that Ford said really helps to distribute to potential employers.
"We're getting people jobs," Ford said, "and we're doing volunteer work."
The drug court web site, http://www.co.champaign.il.us/drugcourt, also spiffed up with the help of a county employee in the last year, shows pictures of clients volunteering at community events such as the Illinois Marathon. They also helped plant a garden at King School in Urbana.
That's real volunteering, not court-ordered public service work, Ford noted.
"Our posture with them is we want them to get jobs. But if you can't get a job, volunteer and show people you can work, show them you're trustworthy and anxious to work," he said.
The addition of Deputy Jim Golaszewski to the drug court team has also helped. Ford said he had long wanted to have a police officer on the team, which already has lawyers, probation officers and drug counselors, but until they received the federal grant, that wasn't possible.
The easy-going, deputy with almost 32 years of service has a calming influence on clients, Ford said.
Golaszewski does home checks, sits in on the Monday team meetings where client cases are reviewed, then attends the Monday afternoon court sessions where clients are present.
"The home checks are teaching these multiple-convicted felons that you can trust a police officer," Ford said, adding that Golaszewski was recently able to help quietly defuse a potential meltdown of a client in court.
Ford said when the grant money is almost gone, he plans to approach the local chiefs of police and ask if they could find the money to help continue funding the quarter-time police position.