Drug, mental health court grads get second chance
Christine Overton hugs Sangamon County Circuit Judge John “Mo” Madonia during the first graduation ceremony for the mental health recovery court in the Sangamon County boardroom Friday, April 28, 2017. [Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register]
By John Reynolds
Posted Apr 28, 2017 at 6:13 PMUpdated Apr 28, 2017 at 6:37 PM
Two years ago, Vincent Chavez of Springfield was facing prison time for a drug charge.
The only options he saw were living in a prison cell or leaving town. Luckily, he learned about a third possibility, the Sangamon County Drug Court that has been in operation since 2010. It gives non-violent offenders the chance to go through an intensive program that includes frequent drug testing, education or work requirements and regular court visits.
On Friday, Chavez, 42, and six other people graduated from the drug court program. They were joined by four other people who were the first graduates of the county’s Mental Health Recovery Court, a similar initiative that helps people whose underlying problem is a mental health issue.
Chavez said he’s grateful for the drug court, which enabled him to get off drugs and reclaim his life.
“There were many years of heroin use. The last seven years, I was an IV user, so in the drug world, I graduated,” Chavez said. “I took this program and ran with it. ... My kids needed me. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m at this age now where I’m not getting any younger. It’s time to grow up, so to speak.”
Friday’s dual graduation ceremony for the 11 participants was in the county board chamber at the Sangamon County Complex. The room was packed with friends and family of the graduates, as well as people who work in the two programs.
Sangamon County Circuit Judge Pete Cavanagh, who oversees the drug court, congratulated the graduates. After the ceremony, he said the overall goal of the program is to reduce recidivism.
“The idea behind the drug court is to get at the root of the problem,” Cavanagh said. “We have mental health services, drug treatment, and at times, in-patient treatment to get the substance out of their system. Basically, we address the underlying problem so the person can get better. We have great success. Our participants aren’t always crime-free, but they live better lives. In many instances, they do find full recovery and they don’t ever commit crimes again. It’s a wonderful program.”
Friday’s drug court class was the largest to ever graduate in Sangamon County. Cavanagh estimated that since the program began, 40 to 50 people have graduated.
Circuit Judge John “Mo” Madonia oversees the Mental Health Recovery Court, which he said enables participants to get the treatment they need.
“This is a way to get them into the system, evaluated, and address therapy, medications, and get them the structure they need so they don’t keep making those decisions,” Madonia said.
He noted that both the drug court and the mental health court are a good deal for taxpayers.
“We are saving the taxpayers thousands of dollars in incarceration based on being able to get (the participants) into services that are already out there through different programs. If we can get them into therapy and get them taking their medication, then we can keep them out of jail, which is directly affecting the taxpayer,” Madonia said.
‘Now or never’
Gov. Rauner at The Mill in Lincoln
Christine Overton, 48, of Springfield was one of Friday’s Mental Health Recovery Court graduates. She’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but declined to take her prescription medication. That led to self-medicating with crack cocaine.
“I didn’t take it because I was always being teased about taking my medication. I was being called crazy and stuff like that. I didn’t want the stigma,” Overton said.
She said she was addicted to crack cocaine for more than 20 years, which led to theft arrests as she tried to support her habit.
A few years ago, Overton said, she was in the Sangamon County Jail facing up to 10 years on a retail theft charge. Homeless, she decided it was time for a change. That’s when she got into the new Mental Health Recovery Court.
“I made up my mind it was giving to be now or never,” Overton said.
She flourished in the program and has turned into one its best spokeswomen. Overton even talked to Springfield police officers while they were undergoing training to deal with people who have mental health issues.
It was a welcome role reversal for Overton, whose past interactions with the police involved arrests.
“They allowed us to tell our stories, the officers asked questions, and we went from there. It was awesome,” she said.
Since getting involved in the program, Overton has gotten a place to live and is motivated to do more to help people who are having addiction and mental health problems. She has advice for those going through the same issues she’s confronted.
“You have to accept who you are,” Overton said. “You have to accept the things you’ve done, but you don’t have to accept to keep doing them. When it comes to your life, you have to know that you are better than what anybody says you are. You’re not a schizophrenic, you’re not a person with bipolar, that’s just a diagnosis. That doesn’t define who you are. ... It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”
Chavez also had some advice for people who are dealing with drug addiction and don’t see a way out. He said that if he can get clean, other people can, too.
“Anyone who remotely knows me from the past knows that I was the grimiest dope fiend on the street, meaning I did anything and everything,” Chavez said. “It is possible. It takes some people longer to get it. I’m fortunate I got it.”
–Contact John Reynolds: email@example.com, 788-1524, twitter.com/JohnReynoldsSJR.