URBANA — Cortez Epinger spent a good deal of his 20s depressed. And when he was depressed, he didn't want to talk about why. He chose to get high instead.
Now 30 and clear-headed for a year, Epinger is able to talk.
"Marijuana is where I went when I was stressed or depressed. I used that as a scapegoat. Now I don't have to use that. I am able to speak. A couple of years ago, I wouldn't be doing this interview," he said.
On Monday, Epinger will be among nine men and women to graduate from Champaign County Drug Court's 28th class. He's but one of 194 success stories in the 13-year history of the program, which uses a multifaceted approach to helping people whose addictions have led them to crime.
"We start with treatment, and we go from there," said Judge Jeff Ford, drug court czar since its inception.
"If they need more education, we tell them when to start that. If they need employment help, we will tell them when it's time to start with that. Everybody talks to mental health about a week or two in. It's not just drugs. Research has shown that a lot of people involved in drugs have had trauma in their life," Ford said.
Count Epinger among the traumatized.
It was a theft conviction for shoplifting a year ago that landed Epinger in drug court. It wasn't that he was high or needed money for drugs that day. His crime was more about "self-sabotage," he thinks.
"The drug court program really helped me a lot, to find myself and to speak and talk about a lot of my issues growing up," he said.
"My mother was a drug addict and an alcoholic. I went through abuse and abandonment," he said, adding there was no father in the picture.
Born in Omaha, Neb., Epinger, an only child, was in and out of foster care for a good chunk of his childhood.
"My childhood was so bad. It was devastating. There is a lot of stuff I've seen," he said, his voice trailing.
When he was 14, his mother died, and a loving but "militant" aunt stepped in to parent him.
"She taught me the value of education. I was in gangs when I was younger, and she helped me get out."
"She was the reason I had become successful. She forced me to read books, speak better, not to talk slang. I had her in my life three years," he said, adding that she passed away when he was a freshman in college.
Epinger then came to Champaign County to live with another aunt.
He attended Parkland College and Illinois State University for three years, but marijuana and a gun-related charge did him in there before he could graduate.
"I just wasn't sure of myself like I should have been. I got to my senior year and about to graduate. It was like self-sabotage," he said.
When he was first offered drug court as a sentence, people warned him it was a "set-up to go back to jail."
Epinger didn't buy that.
"It set me up to get my life in order and to start loving myself again and see the value I have for people and myself," he said.
"I didn't know what to think going in. It helped me to be the man I'm capable of being. I've seen changes in people I would not have thought could happen," he said.
Epinger said he went in with a positive attitude and a desire to change.
"I got through it faster than most because of my attitude. I had the attitude that I was going to do anything they wanted me to do. I was not going to be aggressive or defiant.
"I never got in trouble (in my year of probation). I want to change. That's still my motto. I'm still changing, doing better, moving forward. I still have goals, dreams, aspirations," he said.
Not surprisingly, he wants to go into social work, something he was considering even before his arrest last year. Epinger said his earlier computer networking major was more about money than passion.
"I want to be able to help kids in similar or worse situations than I was in," he said.
When Epinger got out of jail, he spent five months living at Restoration Urban Ministries in Champaign. He developed such a good rapport with the staff there, he has been working there part-time since January and lives in his own place in Urbana.
"I get to help and talk and motivate a lot of people at Restoration. They give me a lot of motivation. That's how I get through issues now."
Champaign County Drug Court, by the numbers
Current graduating class: 28th
Men now graduating: 4
Women now graduating: 5
Their average time in drug court: 20 months
Oldest graduate: 50
Youngest graduate: 29
Youngest age when first used cannabis: 8
Youngest age when first used alcohol: 11
Prior felony convictions: 33
Prior misdemeanor convictions: 25
Prior petty traffic tickets: 53
Prior penitentiary sentences: 16
Prior community-based sentences: 39
Violations since being in drug court: 2 traffic tickets, 1 misdemeanor
Source: Champaign County Judge Jeff Ford
For information on drug court, go to http://www.co.champaign.il.us and click on Drug Court Information on the lower left.