Angela Gomez just wanted to get her sentence so she could go to prison and do her time, get out and get high again as soon as possible.
“I was one of those people that was laying on his courtroom floor, ‘dope sick,’ begging to take my time, and he wouldn’t let me,” she said, leaning against a podium.
Gomez looks back at the audience gathered in the third floor jury assembly room at the Leighton Criminal Court Building for a brief moment. Many people are nodding with her empathetically, because they’ve been high on that courtroom floor, too.
Gomez turns to face Cook County Circuit Judge Charles P. Burns. She breaks into a smile and her voice swells with excitement.
“And it’s because of you, and because you all believed in me, that I now have a job, I’m in college. I’ve been over 13 months sober.”
The audience erupts into applause and cheers.
After months of intensive drug rehabilitation and counseling, Gomez and 23 other people stood tall before officers of the court, family members and supporters during the Rehabilitation Alternative Probation (RAP) program graduation ceremony on Thursday afternoon.
Two more graduates couldn’t attend, but count toward the total of 26 in the program’s fall 2015 class.
This group now joins the more than 1,100 people to have finished the RAP program over the past 16 years. Among the 2,700 drug courts in the U.S., Cook County’s drug treatment court program is nationally recognized as one of 10 model courts by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Recidivism rates for RAP graduates is low. Three years after graduation, overall felony convictions are down by 81 percent.
Data provided by the court indicates 87 percent of graduates will not have another felony drug conviction in the three years after completing the program. Over a 12-year period, that rate surpasses 90 percent.
Burns said RAP graduation is like Christmas Day for the drug court staff. He said too often society looks at drug addicts as people who put themselves in a bad situation and don’t deserve help. “Addicts lives matter,” Burns said, arguing everyone is capable of change.
“You are human, your life matters and when your life matters, you contribute to society,” he told the audience gathered at the courthouse. “There’s a long journey all of you took. I cannot be more proud of you for what you’ve done.”
The RAP program was founded in 1999 as a drug court diversionary program to help people with drug-related felony convictions recover from drug and alcohol addiction and get the counseling and job training they need to lead stable lives and avoid another conviction.
“We’re targeting addicts,” Burns said. “Not just users or abusers — hardcore addicts.”
Those who volunteer to be in the program are sentenced to two years of RAP probation, and if they successfully complete the program, they will have the drug felony conviction removed from their record.
“I don’t care what they’ve been convicted of or if they’ve been in drug treatment before,” Burns said. “It’s really how they’re going to approach the program at this time.”
The program starts with 120 days of jail-based treatment and counseling before participants are transferred to residential treatment facilities and halfway houses. The men’s and women’s programs are held separately, Burns said, because both groups face different challenges in their recovery.
Many women are survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and some have children and are also dealing with child-custody issues.
RAP participants meet regularly with a drug court team comprised of Burns, an assistant state’s attorney, probation officers, representatives from Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities and defense attorneys to review their progress. Random drug tests are administered each week.
RAP participants have to complete 75 hours of intensive outpatient treatment and must attend self-help groups as part of their recovery. Burns said one of the strengths of the program is that RAP participants are placed in employment opportunities so that they can immediately begin earning an income toward a fresh start.
“These programs save lives not just of the person in front of me, but their children, friends and family,” Burns said. “For every person, it saves someone else.”
Timothy Gulley, 55, said he lived on the streets and abused drugs for so long, he forgot how to live a normal life. One of five children, he grew up in a good home on the city’s South Side, graduated from high school and went to college for a few years. Gulley learned the electrical trade from his father and was a union electrician until he got hooked on cocaine.
It led to 22 years of addiction and homelessness. Gulley lived on the streets and abandoned buildings, and often stole copper pipes and wire that he could sell, he said.
The RAP program’s behavior-modification counseling taught him how to change his way of thinking and cope with challenges in life.
Today, the 2012 RAP graduate is an electrician with a steady stream of clients and is working toward certification. Gulley got married in September 2014 and honeymooned with his new wife in Italy. He now lives in a high-rise condominium downtown.
“When I was a user, I wished I could be a normal person. Today, I’m a normal person. I work every day, I go to church, I pay my taxes, I pay my bills, I have a beautiful wife,” Gulley said. ” I am so grateful. I just never knew life could be so good.”
‘The best of the justice system’
Kyle Hilbert’s public defender was pretty sure he could beat his latest drug arrest. But after going to prison three times and seven drug recovery programs over the course of nearly 20 years, he was done with doing time. He asked to join RAP.
Hilbert, 32, grew up in Glenview and started smoking marijuana at age 12. He became addicted to prescription painkillers, heroin and other drugs over time. Homeless at times and living out of his truck, he would steal for drugs and food.
“I feel like in life I’ve been on both sides of the street,” he said. “I’ve been raised in an upper middle-class area and I have lived in the lowest class of areas where they don’t take care of the streets, where people just throw things on the ground and crime is just rampant.”
Although he has been part of other drug treatment programs in the past, Hilbert said what’s made the difference this time is that he’s learned to be self-accountable. It’s one thing to report to the court — but unless he was willing to change, he wouldn’t be able to help himself or anyone else, he said.
When Hilbert stepped up to the podium Thursday, he said he was grateful to have been part of RAP and have a chance to change his life.
But life still isn’t perfect or easy. Hilbert recently saved up just enough money to get a car and then found out he owes hundreds of dollars in traffic tickets.
It could be worse, he said, and he knows his former self likely wouldn’t have been able to handle this stress. But Hilbert said he has learned the skills to deal with unexpected roadblocks.
Hilbert learned welding and is now a supervisor at his job. He told the audience that he has been sober since Sept. 11, 2014, but he knows it’s a daily reprieve and that he could start up again tomorrow.
“It’s the choices, it’s the changing of my life, it’s the new way of doing things, looking at things. … It’s not just stopping drugs — that’s easy,” he said. “You’ve got to change who you are as a person. I hope everybody stays on that same path. It’s up to each and every one of you. Make the difference, be the change.”
The audience erupts again — including Remicko George, a 2014 RAP graduate. George is among several alumni who now mentor RAP participants. A drug addict for more than 30 years, he said the RAP program helped him understand his emotions and some of the things that drove him to drug use.
Like Gulley and Hilbert, George said learning new cognitive and coping skills was key to his transformation and didn’t happen overnight.
“In order to live, it’s like a war,” he said. “You have to draw a line in the sand and decide which side to stand on.”
George’s next graduation ceremony is his own — he is receiving his GED on Dec. 5. He has also completed two culinary training programs and wants to use his skills toward a culinary career and to feed the homeless.
“Give yourself a chance. These are old cliches, but they work. It’s one moment at a time, one day at a time,” he said. “The best part is if you ask for help, it’s available. I didn’t do this by myself. That’s how I made it.”
Burns said programs like RAP are always susceptible to budget cuts, but they stand a better chance of survival when the public sees positive outcomes.
“This is a rehabilitative program. This is a restorative program and that’s the best of the justice system,” he said. “It’s not just lock somebody up and forget about them — it’s to change them, to change the way they’re thinking, change their life, their family and change society. These programs are necessary.”
Gomez is in cosmetology school and dreams of opening her own salon someday.
In the short term, Hilbert said he is looking forward to starting his career and paying off his debt. And like many other RAP alumni, he wants to take his experience and keep paying it forward.
“What I’d really like to do if I won the lottery, the Mega Millions, I would like to buy a building, rehab it, have a recovery home where I can give the guys some kind of training and get them certified in things and give them a head start,” he said. “That would be awesome, I would really like to do that.”