One day at a time: Specialty court graduates reflect on where they've been, where they're going
The "Happy Graduation" banner remained aloft for most of last week's celebration for the drug and mental health court graduates at Rolling Meadows Third Municipal District. But as the informal ceremony concluded, one end fluttered to the ground. John Mann, 55, picked it up and held it in place until the last speaker finished.
The Elgin man isn't one of the graduates, not yet. Drug-free for 18 months and 17 days, he has a few months to go. And he's determined to see it through to the end.
"You have to make the decision that you're tired of bumping your head against that stone wall," Mann said.
Having made that decision, you have to ask for assistance, says Mann. Some folks call that weakness. Mann says it's the opposite.
"If you don't do something different you get the same result you've always gotten," Mann said. "You can't do this without help."
Problem-solving or specialty courts like Cook County's drug and mental health court were established for nonviolent, repeat felony offenders including veterans, people with mental health issues and individuals struggling with addiction.
Specialty courts have operated in Cook since 1998, when the first drug court was established at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. The first mental health court opened there in 2004, followed by veterans court in 2009.
Specialty courts subsequently opened in all the suburban districts including Rolling Meadows' Third Municipal District, where veterans and mental health courts have operated since 2011. The drug court opened in Rolling Meadows in 2019. Similar specialty courts operate in DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.
They operate like this: A defendant pleads guilty in exchange for two years probation. During that time, he or she receives treatment, undergoes periodic drug tests, appears twice a month in court, meets regularly with probation officers, performs community service and receives assistance obtaining housing, employment and education.
Along with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, social service and Veterans Affairs representatives, treatment providers and addiction and mental health experts assist and monitor the defendant over the two years and -- in some cases -- beyond.
Teena Branch, a mental health court graduate, remains in touch with Rolling Meadows Presiding Judge Jill Cerone-Marisie, who oversaw her case. Branch spoke during last week's ceremony.
"This specialty court saved my life," she said. "It saved my mental health."
She's not the only one. Several graduates echoed her remarks, including a mental health court graduate who said he recently completed his master's degree.
While he was in the program, Truvoy James, 54, picked up another charge. But Judge Joseph Cataldo, who presides over Rolling Meadows' drug court, didn't give up on James.
"He gave me a second chance," said James, who is 13 months sober and has a job.
Calling it an uphill battle, fraught with "moments of doubt and difficulty," Cataldo acknowledged the path toward health and sobriety is not easy. But their presence at the graduation ceremony testifies that it works and "it is possible to break this destructive pattern."
"Keep fighting," Cataldo said. "Keep working hard."
In her remarks, Cerone-Marisie acknowledged that sometimes people fail. She encouraged the graduates to stay active and work their programs.
"If there's a relapse ... it's not the end of the world," she said. "Pick yourself up and start again."
Vernon Saunders has been clean three years and two months. The Chicago man credits drug court with restoring his life and helping him reject the "crazy street stuff I learned in my madness."
The system that locked him up initially provided the key to his sobriety.
"Every day I wake up I don't have drug dealers in my phone," said Saunders, who added he has been clean three years and two months. "I don't wake up going to commit a crime."
Happily married, he said he has a job and has reestablished a relationship with his son.
"You all gave me a life," he said.
His attorney, Camille Bachli, a 28-year veteran of the public defender's office, told him "the most rewarding and fulfilling part of my job is working for you in drug court."
Gregory Mannery, 67, is working toward his own graduation day. At the ceremony, he recalled how an overdose landed him in specialty court. The Elgin man remembers riding his bike to a gas station and waking up strapped to a gurney.
"It made me open my eyes," said Mannery. He promised Cataldo, "if you take a chance on me, I will not let you down."
Mannery said he had been sober 11 months, 17 days and counting.