Limmy Williams, 49, of Bellwood, receives recognition for completing two years in a Cook County drug court treatment program during a small courtroom ceremony last month. | Below, the court’s presiding judge, Ramon Ocasio III, presents participants with their certificates of completion. | William Camargo/Wednesday Journal
Nowadays, Bellwood resident Limmy Williams, 49, is grateful for the little things — like a tooth brush, toothpaste, deodorant and sobriety.
“I thought I’d never be standing here today,” Williams said during an unconventional graduation ceremony last month inside of a courtroom at the Fourth Municipal District Courthouse in Maywood.
The fourth district is home to one of the first three drug treatment courts in the Cook County court system. The treatment courts are one of five types of specialty courts — including ones for veterans, mental health treatment and prostitution — that emphasize alternative means of punishment over the meting out of conventional justice.
“This is about the criminal justice system treating you as a person instead of as another case or another disposition,” retired judge Lawrence Fox told the six graduates at a May 26 ceremony.
For 12 years, Fox presided over the first Rehabilitation Alternative Probation, or RAP, program, established at the county’s main criminal division court at 26th and California in 1998. Since then, alternative treatment courts have been established within all of the county’s municipal divisions and more than 3,300 people have participated, according to county court officials.
The six graduates were all leaving the program after two years of close monitoring and intense treatment — starting with 120 days at one of the county’s residential treatment programs and subsequent months of weekly drug testing and monthly appearances before a judge. Each participant’s progress is closely tracked by a team, including a probation officer, a public defender, a prosecutor and at least one judge, among other officials. Fox said he meets frequently with the court’s presiding judge, Ramon Ocasio III, to discuss each defendant.
“There’s a lot of brainstorming,” Fox said. “We’re always thinking, ‘Well, what can we do or say? What are the next steps? Are we giving this person everything they need? Are they trying hard enough to take advantage of what they’re being offered?”
Ocasio said he likens his role to that of a mentor or life coach, the process being premised more on empathy than strict jurisprudence.
“I’m constantly thinking about what issues are they facing, how they’re doing, have they found a job or are they involved in job training,” Ocasio said. “These are people who are dealing with all sorts of challenges.”
In order to be eligible for the treatment program, defendants have to be willing to participate, admit their drug addiction, and their convictions must be non-violent. Fox said he personally supervises around 19 eligible individuals in his post-retirement.
“The typical participant is in his mid-40s, has been using for almost 10 years, and is a repeat offender with felony cases,” Fox said. “A really good percentage of them have been in the penitentiary before, so this program is really their last, best hope. And that’s really the point. We want to target the most challenging cases because the research says that they respond much better to what we do than people who don’t have as extensive criminal records.”
According to county data, the RAP program has a 40 percent completion rate. And recidivism rates for graduates who have completed the program after three years have been cut by 84 percent.
Williams and his fellow graduates rejoiced at learning from Ocasio that all of their outstanding court fines and probation fees would be waived and their cases dismissed.
“It’s going to be like this never happened,” said Ocasio. “In drug treatment court, we have a presumption of mercy.”
That presumption and the support system he had for two years constantly reinforcing the sense that he could beat his addiction is why he’s sober today, Williams said.
“I never completed anything in my life,” Williams said. “This is the only thing I completed and I’m proud of it. That addiction was truly what was holding me back. Now that the courts have given me another chance, I’m going to take it and roll with and do something positive.” VFP