This Cook County judge gives convicts his cell number — if they complete addiction program

Judge Charles Burns oversees the Rehabilitative Alternative Program drug court. It helps people beat addiction, find jobs, housing. It’s those who backslide who keep him up at night.

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Cook County Circuit Judge Charles Burns, who’s run a specialized drug court for more than a decade. “I’ve lost people to overdoses, and you just stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night and think, ‘What could we have done to prevent that loss?’ ”

Cook County Circuit Judge Charles Burns, who’s run a specialized drug court for more than a decade. “I’ve lost people to overdoses, and you just stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night and think, ‘What could we have done to prevent that loss?’ ”

Provided

It’s something almost unheard of in Cook County’s criminal courts: Judge Charles Burns shares his cellphone number with people convicted of felony drug charges.

But not until they complete a probation program that helps them control their addictions.

“You don’t get my cellphone when you’re in the program, obviously, but, you know, I have established relationships with all these people,” Burns says.

The Rehabilitative Alternative Probation program, called RAP, is a specialized drug court that began in 1998 at the main Cook County courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue. Burns, a former prosecutor, was put in charge in 2010. He also presides over a separate court call. But it’s mostly the RAP court that keeps him up at night.

Burns thinks at least seven people in the program have died of overdoses during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We lost track of a lot of people during the first COVID surge because the treatment centers were closed,” Burns says. “They weren’t able to go to in-person, self-help meetings. And there’s a lot of bad stuff on the street.”

When all of the tests are completed on suspected overdose cases in 2021 in Cook County, it’s expected that more than 2,000 people will have died of opioid poisoning last year, up from about 645 in 2015.

“I’ve lost people to overdoses, and you just stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night and think, ‘What could we have done to prevent that loss?’ ” Burns says.

Osmond Malcolm, a graduate of Cook County’s RAP drug court, makes a food delivery Wednesday in Hyde Park for GrubHub.

Osmond Malcolm, a graduate of Cook County’s RAP drug court, makes a food delivery Wednesday in Hyde Park for GrubHub.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

The judge says participants’ successes keep him motivated — people like Osmond Malcolm, who was addicted to Norco pills that contain the opioid hydrocodone and the non-opioid pain reliever acetaminophen.

“When I first met Judge Burns, I was going through hell,” says Malcolm, who says he self-medicated with Norco to cope with severe back pain and was in and out of the hospital because of blood clots in his lungs and a knee. “When I got arrested, I wasn’t even alive. It felt like I was just a walking robot.”

In the RAP program, participants agree to plead guilty to a drug felony, are given probation and must meet stringent requirements to graduate —or else go to prison.

Malcolm’s been down that road. In 1999, he was sentenced to four years in prison for possession of more than 15 grams of heroin.

In 2015, he was arrested for drug possession, pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Burns to two years of probation. He went through drug treatment and had to submit to random testing at least once a week.

Malcolm, 43, who’s a trained chef, says continuing medical ailments keep him from working in a restaurant. He develops recipes for businesses and delivers food.

Having come through the drug court program, he says he’s been able to rekindle his shattered relationship with his family.

Malcolm says he sometimes visits the RAP court to talk with Burns and a probation officer “to remind myself where I came from and what I went through, so I don’t be stupid enough to do it again.”

The number of people in the RAP program is small compared with the thousands arrested in Chicago every year on felony drug charges.

About 90 people have graduated from the program since 2018. It’s not easy. Typically, almost half the participants in a class fail.

The aim is to address their addictions and connect them with housing and jobs and stay out of trouble, Burns says. The program has partnerships with agencies such as CARA, which has employment readiness programs, and A Safe Haven, which does job referrals and placements. The RAP program also helps graduates get their convictions expunged.

According to the program’s coordinator, about 85% of people who graduated in 2019 and 2020 had jobs.

Since 2014, 3.8% of graduates were charged with new felonies within a year of finishing the program. Within three years, that figure rose to 9.6% and to 10.4% after five years.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, “Drug courts that focus their efforts on these individuals — commonly referred to as high-risk/high-need offenders — reduce crime approximately twice as much as those serving less serious offenders and return approximately 50% greater cost savings to their communities.”

Douglas Marlowe, senior scientific consultant for the association, says “because high-risk persons, by definition, have a greater probability of engaging in willful or irresponsible misconduct, failing to address their infractions is most likely to lead to poor outcomes.”

Burns says he needs a “hammer” —the threat of prison —to get some to succeed.

“If everybody could quit using drugs, we wouldn’t have a drug problem,” the judge says. “We can provide incentives, resources. But, you know, there’s the hammer that hangs over their head. That’s something that gets them to the finish line.”

University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack, an expert on addiction, says of drug courts: “It’s not a miracle cure. It’s not the polio vaccine. But they are helpful when they are well-implemented.”

And they address addiction and help keep people from harming the community, Pollack says, “without locking someone up in a cage.”

He says it’s key that drug courts provide “evidence-informed” treatment, for instance, providing people addicted to opioids access to methadone or Suboxone, medications that can curb the desire for heroin or other illicit opioids.

“Abstinence-based programs are not the answer,” Pollack says.

Burns says he knows that any RAP court participant might relapse.

And, he says, “I’m ready to give other chances. I mean, do some of them burn you? Yeah, big time. But, you know, every graduation, for the team, it’s Christmas morning, and every time we have a graduation, it’s something we look forward to twice a year.”

Burns’ drug-court team includes two prosecutors, someone from the public defender’s office, four probation officers, two case managers from the nonprofit Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities and a sheriff’s police officer.

A 28-year-old Southwest Side woman who entered the RAP program in 2018 after being arrested for drug possession says they provided “tough love.”

“Judge Burns was there for me,” says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

She had overdosed while her young son was in a car with her. A paramedic called the police.

The woman says she kept using drugs after starting the program and the judge “sent sheriffs to my mom’s house, sheriffs to my house, and I was worried they were going to kick the door in. I had my daughter, and I relapsed. Judge Burns could have sent me to the penitentiary so many times. But he didn’t.”

The woman violated the terms of her probation at least five times, court records show.

Once, it was for stealing over-the-counter drugs from a Wisconsin store to pay for her drug habit, she says.

She says she finally got the message she needed to complete the program or go to prison —or die.

On Dec. 9, she graduated. Now, she’s in a methadone treatment program, has a job with UPS and hopes to become a driver. She’s lost custody of her daughter and son but sees them regularly.

Of Burns and the RAP program, she says,“They probably saved my life.”

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