Sunday, May 19, 2024

It's good to see someone is trying

The shepherd and the flock: 'Passionate' Cook County sheriff's official brings back wayward drug users “We’re determined to get them back,” Jason Hughes says. Otherwise, “It’s just a matter of time before they will get on fentanyl and die.”
By Frank Main
May 17, 2024, 11:00am CDT

Cook County Sheriff’s Deputy Director Jason Hughes has picked up 71 drug court participants on arrest warrants and brought them back to court to give them another chance.

He doesn’t look like a shepherd in his crisp blue Cook County sheriff’s uniform, with the gold star on his chest announcing he’s a high-ranking deputy director.

Since 2022, though, Jason Hughes has been rounding up people who stray from the drug court run by Cook County Judge Charles Burns.

Hughes’ job is to help keep participants from dropping out.

In Burns’ mind, that makes Hughes and his team the keepers of the flock.

“They go out and find the lost sheep,” the judge says.

Hughes runs “Operation Return to Recovery.” He works with Chicago cops and suburban police agencies to track down drug-court participants for whom arrest warrants have been issued because they didn’t show up for hearings in Burns’ court or failed to complete their regularly scheduled drug screenings.

Hughes says so far he has corralled 71 wayward participants.

“We’re determined to get them back,” he says, because otherwise “it’s just a matter of time before they will get on fentanyl and die.”

Gwendolyn Townsend was one of the lost sheep. One time, Chicago police officers found her slumped in a baggage claim area at O’Hare Airport where she was trying to keep warm on a winter day. She was wanted on an arrest warrant from Burns’ program, which is formally known as (W)RAP for Rehabilitative Alternative Probation. The cops contacted Hughes’ team, which got her back to court.

Another time, Hughes says, he picked up Townsend on a warrant on the West Side near a spot where he suspected she was getting high on heroin and fentanyl.

Burns kept giving her chances to succeed.

On Thursday, Townsend strolled in to Burns’ Courtroom 402 wearing a frilly red dress and giddy at being one of the 15 latest graduates of the (W)RAP program. She said she’s sober and her future is brighter than ever.

“I’ve been in the program since 2019,” she said. “I got tired of running.”

Townsend said she plans to move to Milwaukee to live with her daughter and son, who were in the packed courtroom for a celebration that featured one graduate singing a poem he wrote.

Cook County Sheriff’s Deputy Director Jason Hughes with Gwendolyn Townsend, who graduated from the [W]RAP drug court program Thursday.

Last year, All Rise, a Virginia advocacy group for people with drug and mental health disorders, honored the Cook County (W)RAP program as one of most innovative treatment courts in the country — out of more than 4,000 of them.

Twenty such “problem-solving courts” operate in Cook County. On Thursday, a total of 44 people graduated from two veterans’ courts and three mental-health courts, along with the [W]RAP program.

Once W(RAP) participants graduate, their convictions are expunged with the help of Burns and the Cabrini Green Legal Aid organization. They are given housing assistance. And they hunt for a job through the not-for-profit agency Cara.

Burns said each of the latest graduates of his program has landed a full-time job with employers that include Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Dollar Tree, Smith & Wollensky and Eataly Chicago.

It’s part of what the judge calls “transformative justice.”

“We should punish the people we’re afraid of and help the people we’re mad at,” Burns told the well-wishers gathered in his courtroom. “Nobody grows up wanting to be a criminal. Nobody grows up wanting to be an addict. It happens.”

Then, he turned to his newest graduates, the latest “ambassadors” for his program, and told them, “You inspire all of us to give the next person a chance.”

Judge Charles Burns to drug program grads: “You inspire all of us to give the next person a chance.”

Hughes got an opportunity to address the flock, too.

On their paths to graduation, five [W]RAP participants had been brought to court on warrants by Hughes’ team and kept in the program by Burns.

“I know you sometimes get upset when you see me coming around the corner,” Hughes said, adding, as his voice cracked, “This is all about you guys. I’m very passionate about your life.”

As the ceremony came to a close, one of the graduates, who said he’s been “coming to jail since the ‘70s,” gestured to Burns and blurted out something seldom heard in a courtroom: “I love you, judge!”

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