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Peoria County's problem-solving court tries an accountability approach to justice

Kristin McHugh/WCBU
Judge Sean Donahue operates primarily out of courtroom 123 in the Peoria County Courthouse.

Judge Sean Donahue says his time in the problem-solving court has been some of the most transformative and rewarding years of his five-year career on the bench.

Donahue oversees the problem-solving court of Peoria County, dealing primarily with DUI, drug, mental health and veterans’ issues.

Problem-solving courts are a special kind of court that looks at addressing the underlying problems that lead people into the legal system in the first place — issues like addiction, mental health and poverty.

“We are what they call post-adjudication court,” explained Donahue. “So you have to plead guilty to come in. And then they engage in services.”

Depending on the crime, those services include recovery specialists, counselors, cognitive behavioral therapy and moral recognition therapy. In this first step of the process, visits are frequent and the commitment is intensive.

“There’s constant court involvement,” said Donahue. “Whereas with traditional probation, they might see a probation officer once a month, in this court, they’re going to see their probation officer once a week.”

Donahue said in the drug court, testing can happen as often as two to three times a week. After three months, the meetings with the judge drop to once every two weeks, then eventually it changes to once every three weeks before graduating out of the program.

“It’s constant accountability,” said Donahue. “You’re trying to get them engaged in services and to be sober. But all of that takes time.”

Over that time, Donahue gets to celebrate the successes of people going through the program. The evidence-based problem-solving courts, which have shown a roughly 10% decrease in re-arrests compared to similar cases in regular courts, use a system of incentives and sanctions. If it’s found that people in the program are keeping up with their responsibilities at their visits, they receive incentives like snacks, gift cards and sanitary products. Sanctions can range from community service to jail time.

Typically, crimes that involve a victim aren’t eligible to plead guilty into the problem-solving courts. In the mental health court, Donahue said common charges include crimes like criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. The drug court charges tend to be retail thefts, possession or forgery. The court also primarily serves people designated as “high-risk and high-need.”

Donahue said the biggest misconception about the problem-solving courts is that they are just a “slap on the wrist.”

“It is not easy at all,” he said. “It’s way more normal than normal probation…It’s like intensive probation on steroids for the most part. That’s a fair way to describe what it’s like.”

In July, the Peoria County Board began the process of approving a professional evaluation of Peoria’s problem-solving courts, in conjunction with Illinois State University. Whatever the eventual results of these evaluations, Donahue is convinced of the program's effectiveness.

“Even if the study ends up saying that our courts are 10 to 15% effective, that, to me, is still a win,” he said. “I don’t see how that would be a bad thing at all. They’re never going to be 90% effective. But 10% is not so bad, in my opinion.”

Wednesday, Aug. 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, and Judge Donahue will be a keynote speaker at the Peoria Recovery Project's awareness event at the Warehouse on State (736 SW Washington St.) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

In the drug court, Judge Donahue sees some of the consequences of the opioid crisis first hand.

“They’re drastic and they’re horrible,” he said. “That’s the easiest way to put it.” He shared the story of a man who had been in problem-solving court on a Thursday, who then overdosed and died the following weekend.

Anecdotally, he has noticed a drop in heroin cases, but methamphetamine use is still high.

Donahue credits harm reduction programs like Jolt and the growing availability of Narcan with preventing more overdoses than ever before.

“I know there’s people who are like: ‘that’s silly, you shouldn’t have all that stuff out there’,” he said. “It’s not silly. It’s absolutely necessary and harm reduction is an important part of this process.”

With harm reduction, those who struggle with addiction can potentially find their way to the problem-solving courts and a new start.

“They’re an addict. They’re not a bad person, they’ve got a bad problem,” said Donahue. “And they certainly don’t deserve to die.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.