Keevin Irons’ turning point came after his seventh arrest. For 20 years, the 41-year-old native of south suburban Chicago Heights had been hooked on drugs. “I didn’t know that it would cause me to make a career out of it,” he said, “but it did, and that was the wrong career.”

His arrest in September was a wake-up call. Cook County Circuit Court Judge James L. Rhodes gave him four years’ probation on a drug possession charge and ordered him to 28 days in residential treatment at the Haymarket Center, a substance abuse rehabilitation program at 120 N. Sangamon St.

Irons received no acupuncture. No synthetic substitutes such as methadone. No shock therapy or drugs designed to mute the brain’s pleasure impulses. His treatment was aimed at getting him to recognize the patterns of abuse in his life.

Treatment “has brought me a long way to learn about my disease and what made me do the things that I did,” said the soft-spoken African American. “I see my life differently now. I can go out to society and be a productive citizen. Recovery is a beautiful thing.”

More than a dozen years after the national alarm over the crack epidemic hastened the demise of drug treatment, drug policy is taking another turn. Treatment is making a comeback.

Troubled by the devastating impact of drugs on the criminal justice system, the courts are diverting more drug offenders away from prisons, mandating instead that they battle their demons through treatment.

For addicts, success means a drug-free fresh start, while failure promises an express ride to a stiffer sentence that could include a prison term.

But in shifting their approach, courts face a dilemma: More addicts are streaming into the system than it can help. The problem is particularly acute in Cook County, where the drug caseload dwarfs that of other Illinois counties.

As a result, Cook County drug offenders are far less likely to receive drug treatment as part of their probation than those in Illinois’ other 101 counties, shows an investigation by The Chicago Reporter.

And low-income African Americans and Latinos, who make up a disproportionate number of probationers in Cook County, are most affected by those statistics, the Reporter found.

The disparity in access to treatment is one indication of how race and class bias permeate the nation’s drug war, said Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice think tank.

“You have the same drug problem but two different approaches, depending on where you fit in society,” he said. “In more well-to-do areas, a lot of treatment resources are available, so drug abuse can be treated as a public health problem. But in low-income, minority communities, the lack of resources makes it more likely to be treated as a criminal justice issue.”

Crowded Courts
By design, probation straddles the worlds of law enforcement and social work.

Judges use probation as an alternative to prison, a way of exerting control over offenders at home. Reform, rather than punishment, is at the heart of the enterprise. Offenders are ordered into education, job training and treatment programs that keep them out of trouble—and out of prison.

But local probation departments are forced to manage increasingly hefty caseloads. At the end of 1998, Illinois had more than 83,000 adult probationers, a 13 percent increase since 1993.

The problem is magnified in Cook County, home to the country’s largest consolidated court system, which handled more than 68,000 drug arrests in 1999, according to data from the Illinois State Police and Chicago Police Department. That number accounted for 64 percent of the drug arrests statewide, while Cook County has 43 percent of the statewide population.

The enormity of the caseload means some offenders do not get the help they need, experts say.

They include George G. Sutton, a Chicago homeless man, whose daily cocaine habit led him to a one-month stint in the Pontiac Correctional Center.

Despite numerous run-ins with the law, Sutton has never been given treatment for his six-year addiction, he said. “I’m trying my best to leave the crap alone. But it ain’t easy as just saying, ‘I’m not doing no rocks, no blows, no more,’” said the 39-year-old African American. He was standing one recent night on the corner of North Avenue and Lawndale Street, sipping soup served by outreach workers from The Night Ministry, a nonprofit that provides shelter, health care and other services to people on Chicago’s nighttime streets.

“I’m homeless because of the drugs,” he said. “I’m tired of this, man. I’m really tired. I pray to the Lord every night, ‘Give me help.’”

Sutton’s story is familiar to legions of Cook County drug offenders who struggle to break the recurring cycle of drug abuse and arrest.

In 1997, the courts ordered 16.9 percent of the county’s drug offenders to treatment as part of their probation, compared with 55.9 percent of those in the rest of Illinois, shows the Reporter’s analysis of data gathered by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

African Americans and Latinos comprised 80 percent of Cook County drug offenders on probation, compared to 33 percent in the other Illinois counties.

And 49.1 percent of the county’s drug offenders on probation in 1997 reported annual incomes of less than $5,000 at the time of their convictions, compared with 40.1 percent elsewhere in Illinois.

The disparities reflect society’s view that inner-city, poor minorities are beyond redemption, said Darnell F. Hawkins, a professor of African American studies, sociology and criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The presumption is that, even if treated, African Americans can’t be saved from other plights that surround them in their community,” he said. “Treatment will be just a short fix and result in no major change. So why spend money on treating them?”

But race is not necessarily responsible, said David Olson, a senior scientist at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, a state agency that conducts criminal justice research and administers grants.

“I think there’s more going on beyond the race of the defendant. I think it has a lot to do with the culture of courtrooms in Cook County and the volume of cases that they deal with,” said Olson, also an assistant professor of criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. “When judges dispose of a case, they want that done with. They don’t want to have the defendant back in a month on a petition to revoke probation.”

Bill O’Brien, chief of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Narcotics Bureau, concurs. “The enormity of the drug caseload cuts the amount of resources available” in Cook County, he said. “People look to the courts as being a social services agency, but the criminal justice system is not set up for that.”

And Illinois is one of 11 states where probation is administered at the county court level, rather than on a uniform basis statewide, noted Mike Tardy, associate director of the probation division at the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, which coordinates court activities throughout the state.

“Each jurisdiction has different access to resources. So there are some differences in how treatment is made available,” Tardy said.

Each county’s probation department conducts pre-sentence investigations, which give judges extensive background information on each offender and help them determine an appropriate sentence.

When making decisions about whether to provide treatment, judges consider factors such as the nature of the offense, as well as the offender’s character and criminal history. Illinois law precludes treatment for violent offenders and those who have been charged with drug trafficking.

But experts point out that Cook County offers other help to drug offenders.

Last year, the 29-year-old “drug school,” run by the state’s attorney’s office, diverted more than 4,500 nonviolent drug offenders from jail terms to its four-week program, said Mark Kammerer, director of the State’s Attorney’s Drug Abuse Program. If an individual successfully completes the program, all pending charges are dismissed.

And in February, state Rep. Thomas Dart sponsored House Bill 1961, which would create a residential treatment center operated by the Cook County Sheriff. The legislation targets nonviolent female drug offenders in Cook County Jail and would offer a year of intensive treatment as an alternative to prison.

“We let people go from prison and put them back into the communities with no services, and we act surprised when they are doing the same thing that got them into prison,” Dart said. “We need to come up with an alternative plan like this to try to address the core of the problem.”

The measure passed the Illinois House of Representatives in April but stalled in the Senate Rules Committee.

“If this pilot program works, there’d be no reason not to expand it throughout the state,” Dart added. “Everybody that I talked to around the state would love to see this get going, too.”

Treatment Gaps
Since the emergence of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, courts across the country have been flooded with low-level drug offenders who cycle in and out of the system.

In Illinois, the number of prison sentences for drug crimes increased more than twelvefold from 1983 to 1999, when 13,766 drug offenders were sentenced to prison. Once discharged, about 40 percent of them will end up back in prison within three years, according to data compiled by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Worse, drug users are among the most active perpetrators of other crimes. Nearly two-thirds of jail inmates nationwide said they used drugs “regularly” prior to their arrests, and about one in six committed their current offense to sustain a drug habit, according to the 2000 study, “Drug Use, Testing, and Treatment in Jails,” by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sobered by the statistics, some experts say the money and energy used for incarcerating drug offenders would be better spent trying to curb demand.

“Warehousing addicts in the prisons won’t do us any good,” said Anthony A. Cole, vice president of the Haymarket Center. “If we could stop them on the front end by providing treatment, society is much better off.”

Reginald Anderson is a case in point. Between October and April, Anderson writhed in his Cook County Jail cell, wrestling with his decades-long drug addiction. “I’d been wanting to stop, but I didn’t know how to go about stopping,” said Anderson, 43, a South Side native who once played varsity basketball for the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

But in April, he got a chance to enroll in Haymarket’s treatment program as part of his 2 1/2-year probation on a drug possession charge. “Some judges look through a person. They could see deep down inside that you really need help,” Anderson said. “It’s not just all about sticking people in jail.”

Courts can send addicted offenders such as Anderson to outpatient treatment, typically for three to four months. Those who need more help may receive 28 days of residential treatment, in which everything from meals to break times are strictly regulated.

“Coercion works,” said Melody M. Heaps, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a nonprofit agency that links the courts to community-based treatment centers. “When people feel that they have something to lose, they are more likely to break through the denial of addiction and be more receptive.”

Such treatment cuts illicit drug use by 48 percent and reduces arrest rates by 64 percent, according to the 1997 National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And treatment costs less than jail. The Illinois Department of Human Services estimates that methadone treatments cost about $2,300 per patient in fiscal year 2000. A year in prison, by contrast, cost $19,543 per inmate in Illinois last year, according to the department of corrections.

A 1994 study by RAND, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based policy research group, compared the cost of treatment to three other drug-control strategies: drug law enforcement within the United States, border interdiction and drug-fighting efforts abroad.

Treatment was seven times more cost effective than domestic enforcement, 10 times more effective than stemming drug traffic into the country and 23 times more effective than attacking drugs at their sources, RAND found.

But these statistics and studies have not won much support for the treatment alternative, experts say.

Part of the problem is a decades-old stigma attached to drug abuse, said Arthur J. Lurigio, a professor and chairman of the criminal justice department at Loyola University Chicago.

“People still view drug addicts as really different, evil, somehow fundamentally flawed and criminal,” he said. “People do not view addiction as a disease that can be treated.”

That perception is reflected in the number of available treatment slots, experts say.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy, a branch of the White House that oversees federal anti-drug programs, estimated that the nation’s system was equipped to help 2.1 million drug users in 1998, while about 5 million people needed “immediate treatment.”

In Illinois, just under 900,000 adults are in “lifetime need” of substance abuse treatment, and at least 15 percent of them require treatment in any given year, according to state estimates.

Illinois’ current treatment system, however, meets 9 percent of that need, said Melanie Whitter, associate director of the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, which oversees the state’s publicly funded treatment programs.

Illinois’ drug treatment budget has steadily increased, from $186 million in 1999 to $221 million in 2001. In late May, the Illinois General Assembly approved Gov. George H. Ryan’s request for $232 million for treatment in his 2002 budget.

But to close the gap, treatment resources need an even bigger boost. The state human services department’s 1999 report calls for a $118 million increase over a five-year period.

That’s unlikely to happen, said state Sen. John J. Cullerton. “It’s very hard, politically, to spend the money that we should spend to divert people from prisons,” said Cullerton, who in February sponsored a bill to permit the chief judge of each judicial circuit to establish a special court for diverting addicted offenders. “If you introduce a proposal to spend more money on drug programs, [legislators] view it only as an increase in funding. They fail to see that it saves us the money in the long run.”

His legislation, the Drug Court Treatment Act, passed both chambers in April and awaits Ryan’s signature. But it will not provide any new funding for the court program.

Changing Attitudes
A handful of states are ahead of the curve in embracing drug treatment.

In November, California voters approved a landmark ballot referendum that offers treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders.

By adopting Proposition 36, voters in the nation’s most populous state followed the lead of Arizona, which launched a similar program for low-level drug offenders in 1996.

California’s measure, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, will bar state courts from sentencing those convicted of drug possession to prison, and instead route them into mandatory treatment. Those charged with selling drugs will not be eligible.

Offenders will be sent to jail only if they refuse treatment or a judge deems them “unamenable.”

As many as 36,000 inmates a year will benefit when the law goes into effect on July 1, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. The law is expected to reduce California’s incarceration costs by at least $240 million a year and provide an additional $120 million annually in state funds for drug treatment, the office’s analysis shows.

The initiative emerged at a time when voters were becoming disenchanted with the drug war, said Dave Fratello, spokesman for the Santa Monica-based “Yes on Proposition 36” campaign.

“People feel treatment is a real alternative that we should turn to, and I believe that represents an evolution in voter attitudes,” he said. “The last time California weighed in on crime policy was with, ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out,’ and that was an enormously punitive measure, so for the same voters to say we are going to do something different with drugs is quite striking.”

Under California’s 1994 “three-strikes” law, a person convicted of two violent or serious crimes will automatically receive 25 years to life in prison for any new felony offense.

But many experts worry the system is not equipped to manage the influx of offenders who would be steered to treatment. Who will make sure, for example, that addicts make it from the courtrooms to the treatment centers, and how will they be tested to ensure they are drug-free?

“This is the population that tends to require some monitoring to keep them in treatment, but the law provides no mechanism for that,” said Steven Belenko, a fellow at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, a policy research group.

In other states, the pendulum is also swinging away from incarceration to initiatives such as “drug courts.” Drug courts divert offenders to treatment, but they also impose penalties for misbehavior, such as a failed drug test or missed treatment session. If their behavior worsens, the sanctions stiffen.

All 50 states now look to drug courts as a promising treatment model, according to research by the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project at American University in Washington, D.C. More than 650 courts have adopted the model nationwide, with another 449 in the planning stage. Illinois has 12 drug courts, including three in Cook County.

But experts estimate drug courts reach only about 3 percent of addicts in the system. “Statistically they do work, but they should be reaching a larger population,” said Susan Weinstein, chief counsel for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

But expansion may prove difficult without a significant increase in funding, said Loyola’s Olson, who is currently leading an evaluation of Cook County’s drug courts. “It’s clearly something that should be expanded, but can it be done without spreading it too thin?” he said.

For Irons, who completed his treatment program at Haymarket in March, the choice is clear. Before Haymarket, he had never managed to stay sober for more than a month at a time. “You can’t do it without treatment. You can’t kick it alone; you need help,” he said. “It helped me open up all the stuff that was bundled up inside, and get it out.

“I let my family down, big time. Most of all, I let myself down. But I’m picking myself up.”

Tanisha N. Blakely, Anita Bryant, Danielle Duncan, Tim Hollander, Eric W. Luchman, Sarah Mauet, Ellyn M. Ong, John Stanovich and Cheryl Wierda helped research this article.

is investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter.