While the future of Walworth County’s treatment courts remains uncertain, the top prosecutor from its southern neighbor across the state line has no such questions about the programs.
Patrick Kenneally, the state’s attorney for McHenry County, told The Gazette he is an “enormous advocate” for drug court and DUI court. He said his office pushed for the creation of the latter, and its start is imminent.
Meanwhile in Walworth County, District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld has over the last few months publicly voiced concerns about the programs. Other county justice officials have said the DA’s support is necessary for the programs to continue.
Wiedenfeld was out of the office late last week when The Gazette tried to reach him for comment. Kenneally spoke to The Gazette in April, but was not immediately available Friday to provide an update on DUI courts.
In the past, however, Wiedenfeld has said his central concern involves not having the authority to veto who can enter drug treatment court in the absence of more explicit criteria over program admission. Walworth County’s program for intoxicated drivers, meanwhile, is limited to third- and fourth-offense drivers.
Both Wiedenfeld and Kenneally ran as Republicans who were elected to their county’s top prosecutorial post in 2016.
McHenry County’s population is about three times larger than Walworth County’s.
Kenneally said his county is a “mashup” of parts of Illinois—the county includes what are essentially Chicago suburbs, farms, a growing Hispanic population and areas consisting of white, working-class people.
McHenry County has the first specialty court certified by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, Kenneally said. The county’s drug court, its “flagship court,” has a recidivism rate of about 11%, which is low relative to the criminal justice system at large.
Kenneally said he supports the programs particularly because they keep people who want to change their lives out of prison “when they’re suffering from a substance-use disorder that can be treated.”
“We want to steer as many people as we possibly can towards drug courts (and DUI court when it is up and running),” he said. “Because I think it makes the community a better place.”
McHenry County has 60 spots in drug court, and Kenneally said it is “entirely full.” While the county is in the process of adding a DUI court, and Kenneally favors the idea of more broad expansion, he said he does not want to overburden staff by adding more slots or bring in participants who are not good fits.
“I think we’re at a good place,” he said.
Walworth County’s drug court has not been at its full capacity of 25 participants since 2017, program coordinator Katie Behl said. The county currently has 15 participants with two graduations scheduled later this month.
Best practices dictate the program should be for those of highest risk and the highest need, Kenneally said.
McHenry County also has a mental health court and a domestic violence court.
Kenneally said his office has veto power for DUI court and mental health court. However, a statute change in the last two years means a veto from his office for drug court participants can be overridden.
But Kenneally said he can’t think of a time where there was a consensus from the drug court team that was vetoed by the state’s attorney’s office.
“So now it’s up to the drug court team as to whether or not to accept,” he said. “I think all of us are sort of similarly minded with respect to who is a good candidate for these programs.”
The veto question is a key part of the debate happening in Walworth County. Back in February, Judge David Reddy said that of the then-69 entrants into drug court, only two came against the recommendation of the DA’s office.
Wiedenfeld also has brought up safety concerns. To an extent, Kenneally has similar concerns that drug dealers are “usually not” brought into the program. Although, he said decisions always are made on a case-by-case basis.
“So while we do take people who might have a history or are charged with a drug delivery, we are cautious about that, first and foremost, because we don’t want to invite a fox into the hen house,” he said.
Kenneally said it’s hard to argue with treatment courts, especially when compared to the recidivism rates of those being sent to prison. Communities also tend to view substance abuse differently than they did 20 or 30 years ago, he said.
“Treatment courts, I think, are one of the most effective ways to deal with substance abuse,” he said.