State’s Attorney Runty: Henry County Drug Court could be up and running next year

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The Henry County Courthouse in Cambridge.

Momentum to establish a Henry County drug court has grown to the point that officials believe it could be set up and taking cases in a limited fashion by the end of next year.

State’s Attorney Catherine Runty said she is hopeful it will happen that quickly but cautions there are many issues that will have to be sorted through, including funding, staffing and state recognition, before it becomes operational.

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"We’re getting closer and we’re very optimistic about it," said Runty, the first-term state’s attorney who spent 2020 tackling a court-case backlog caused by the pandemic and trying to develop the numerous partnerships needed to start up an alternative court system to address the county’s ongoing crime issues related to methamphetamine and mental health.

"My hope is that, by the end of next year, we’ll have something in place," she said.

The idea behind the alternative court is to help address some of the underlying issues affecting criminal defendants, such as drug use or post-traumatic stress. There are several alternative court programs that can be offered, including special courts for DUI offenses and veteran defendants, and they are developed and approved under the auspices of the Illinois Supreme Court.

It’s not clear how many alternative court offerings Henry County will make, but it has keyed in on the drug court to be first in line. Runty said making the transition will involve changes in the county’s court services system and a reworking of staffing to handle the additional duties.

"Right now there’s a burden on the system and this would help people," she said.

She predicted in a story earlier this year that it could take more than two years to get a drug court up and running, but after the partnerships started quickly solidifying, she became more optimistic about the timeline.

"I think everybody’s becoming aware that there is a problem and that we have to do something different," said Kewanee Police Chief Nicholas Welgat of the county’s ongoing challenges fighting meth crimes, which have placed Kewanee at the the top of national crime-ranking lists for property crimes.

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Welgat has been an active member of the work group comprising the county’s community leaders, mental health agencies and law enforcement, all working together to adapt new ways to fight old and ongoing problems. He said he regularly cites those statistics and their bearing on county residents’ quality of life and safety.

The chief, a former narcotics officers, said the current course, with drug users either getting probation or short stings in jail, and then reoffending when they are released, isn’t working.

"We need a more-effective criminal justice system," he said. "We have to get to the root of this problem."

Runty, who has previous drug-court experience as an attorney in Rock Island County, said members of the working group have provided information and strategies they think would work in Henry County, and the ideas have been whittled down to a plan they hope to start carrying out in 2022.

Kewanee City Councilman Mike Komnick has also gotten involved in the process, bringing the drug-court issue to the forefront of the city’s attention as an active member of the committee after reading the Star Courier series on Kewanee crime in which Runty and Welgat touted a drug court alternative.

More:Komnick keeps drug issue on burner, pushes for community partnerships, programs

"First and foremost, we’ve got to keep pushing the issue," Councilman Mike Komnick told the Star Courier in August. "We have to find things we can do at a community level that will make a difference."

Komnick said the group, called a Recovery Oriented System of Care council and coordinated by Galesburg counseling and recovery services provider Bridgeway, has gotten all of the important players at the table that would need to coordinate to make such a system successful.

"We’ve got to get together and tackle this because right now, each city in Henry County is trying to deal with this on their own," he said.

Runty couldn’t agree more and said the idea keeps gaining traction and expanding because, "We all have the same goal: How do we make the community safer?"

It’s not a short process, but we’ve learned everything we need to do. We almost have all the pieces in place."

She said the Henry County Health Department "has been absolutely instrumental" in helping develop the alternative court plans, as the county’s court services will utilize the department’s growing mental health footprint. 

Henry County Health Department officials wouldn’t comment on the department’s role in the proposed alternative court system until the plan is more solid and funding is approved by the county board, said a spokeswoman.

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The board, using federal stimulus funds, approved $459,000 in "seed money" earlier this year to improve local access to mental health service access generally, a program Administrator Duane Stevens said would pay for itself after two years of operation. Since then, the department has expanded its mental health staff by adding counselors.

Stevens also has been working with the county’s judicial services department to add services to domestic violence and substance abuse offenders by partnering with the probation department, and having a therapist at the courthouse.  He told the Henry County Board earlier this year at it considered a health department funding request that the change in staffing would increase the likelihood of offenders showing up for the counseling sessions.

More:Supreme Court Justice Burke offers support for Henry Co. drug court

The local group also received a vow from Supreme Court Justice Michael Burke to assist, who said in a Star Courier story earlier this year that he was willing to work closely with Henry County officials to help them navigate the complicated process and push a working program through.

via Kewanee Star Courier

December 15, 2021 at 08:30AM

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