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updated: 4/4/2014 5:36 PM

Kane's drug court is key to turnaround for addicts

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Alicia Fabbre
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Oct. 2, 2002 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

When Gilbert Feliciano was sitting in the Kane County jail in March of 2001, he wasn't necessarily looking for a way to kick his drug habit.

He just wanted to get out of jail and stay out of the state prison system.

So when his attorney told him Kane County's drug court program would be a chance to stay out, Feliciano jumped at the opportunity.

On Thursday, the 37-year-old will be one of 18 people graduating from the program. He stayed out of prison and got something else he didn't bargain for - a drug-free life.

"It was a blessing in disguise," said Feliciano, a former Elgin resident now living in Aurora. "Without it, I wouldn't be who I am today."

Today, Feliciano manages a pizza restaurant in Aurora. The last time he held a regular job was in 1993. He had temporary jobs in between, but back then he only worked to get high. Today, the money he earns goes toward rent, groceries and other routine living expenses.

He's been drug-free since October of 2000. Before that, he used heroin, cocaine, crack and marijuana.

When he was on drugs, he lied to his family about his drug use. His mom wouldn't even let him have a key to their Elgin house because she couldn't trust him.

Now that he's broken his 20-year addiction, he's gained the trust of his mother.

She finally gave him his first key to the house this year. "It was like telling me, 'My son is back,' " Feliciano said.

But he has a long way to go in restoring what he's lost.

The irresponsibility that came with his addiction ruined his relationship with his girlfriend and their daughter. He hasn't seen his daughter, now 6, in three years, and is contesting her adoption by her stepfather.

"Everything good in my life I took advantage of and eventually destroyed," Feliciano said. "Today, I'm accountable for everything."

And that wouldn't have happened without drug court.

"They opened their hands and said here's a new opportunity to improve your life," Feliciano said of the workers in drug court. "My life has taken a complete 180."

For the last two years, Kane County Judge James Doyle has given addicts like Feliciano a chance to kick their habits. Addicts in the program must plead guilty to the crimes they committed to support their habits and undergo treatment, drug tests three times a week and weekly visits with Doyle.

If they finish the two-year program, their records are wiped clean of those crimes.

Doyle, who works with a team of probation officers and social workers, started the program in 2000 after a familiar defendant from his courtroom died of a drug overdose. Doyle vowed then that he would find a way to help addicts.

His way is providing compassion and support for recovering addicts while enforcing the rules he lays down. He's not afraid to assist someone in getting a job or help in other ways, but if someone in the program tests positive for drugs, Doyle doesn't hesitate to throw him or her back in the county jail to think about what happened and clean up.

When one of the program participants said recently that he wanted out after testing positive for drugs, Doyle obliged and sentenced him to state prison for the home invasion and car theft charges that originally landed him in the program. Within a few weeks, that same defendant was asking for another chance - something Doyle provided.

During his routine court call, Doyle keeps an eye out for non-violent defendants who are addicts and may need help. Those who want the help usually get it - after meeting with a social worker and talking with Doyle.

Other judges also are sending addicts Doyle's way.

The program has grown to include 313 participants from across the county. One year ago, the program had 105. The enrollment grew when Doyle moved from a courtroom handling felony cases to a courtroom that handles cases like shoplifting, forgery and theft - crimes addicts often commit for money to buy their drugs.

"My theory was when I came down to this courtroom ... I believed most of (the defendants) were drug addicts," said Doyle, who routinely asks defendants in his courtroom if they use drugs. "And I believed we had to address their addictions at this court level before their addictions led them to committing the more serious robberies and burglaries."

In July, the program drew national attention when U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Director Asa Hutchinson visited Doyle's courtroom and vowed to tout the program as a model for other court systems.

Thursday will be the first time Doyle conducts a graduation ceremony for those in the program. Everyone graduating has been in the program for nearly two years.

"It's miraculous recovery by most of the people in this program," Doyle said. "We've been able to design a program for the worst drug addicts who have had the toughest addictions and changed their lives around."

Tina Zavitz is among those who have turned their lives around.

The 22-year-old St. Charles woman faced four felony charges of possession of drugs, forgery and theft - all crimes she says she committed to get money to buy heroin. She could have faced at least nine years in state prison. Once she graduates, those charges will be erased.

"I would not be able to go for any kind of career with that," Zavitz said of the charges, adding that with the program "you don't have to pay for your mistakes for the rest of your life."

Zavitz, who landed in drug court after being arrested the night of her 21st birthday, had her share of trials in the program. She used drugs once and wound up spending 30 days in the county jail. But on Thursday, she'll be delivering one of the speeches at graduation.

After nearly two years in the program, she finds she no longer spends her time wondering how she'll get money to buy the heroin for her next high. Now she's focused on her future - going to college and earning a degree.

"It's more relaxing to be clean," Zavitz said. "There's a lot more time to do things."

Zavitz plans to start college next year. First, she'll pursue a nursing career. When she's finished with that, she hopes to pursue a degree in criminal forensic psychology.

Feliciano said he plans to pursue his interest in singing. He'll make his debut at Thursday's graduation with a rendition of "God Bless America."

And while graduation is the end of the program, both Zavitz and Feliciano know it's only the beginning of their recovery.

"I know I'll never be done working on staying clean," Zavitz said, adding that graduation will provide at least some closure to a part of her life.

Feliciano agrees.

"It's a big stepping stone," he said. "But it doesn't mean it's the end of my recovery ... I think it's dangerous if we look at graduation as 'I'm done with this and it's time to go.' "

Feliciano says he plans to drop by to visit Doyle regularly - even though he won't be required to do so. And if the probation officers want to give him a drug test, Feliciano says, he'll comply. He hopes eventually to mentor some newer members of drug court and start a group for drug court alumni.

"This is part of my new foundation," he said.

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