Charles Burns is the kind of judge we need

Burns has been running the drug court program at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for the last 12 years. More judges like him, and more drug courts, would save lives and cut crime.

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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

The people of Cook County need more judges on the bench like Charles Burns.

Burns has been running the drug court program at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse for the last 12 years, serving as a human crutch and cheerleader to defendants struggling with substance abuse, as the Sun-Times’ Frank Main recently reported.

Through the Rehabilitative Alternative Probation initiative or RAP, Burns and his team help participants’ navigate their road to recovery while also connecting them with housing and job opportunities.

The veteran judge is so dedicated, he gives his cellphone number to graduates, hoping he can continue to lend a sympathetic ear.

Talk about a calling.

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More judges like Burns, to oversee more programs aimed at dealing with the root cause of so much crime — in this case, drug addiction — are part of what’s needed to make Cook County safer for everyone.

RAP participants are given probation in exchange for a guilty plea to a felony drug charge. But they can still end up in prison if they fall short of the requirements to graduate from the program, which has been in existence here since 1998.

Many don’t graduate and others relapse. Some go on to commit more crimes or end up dead.

But there are many successes too: 85% of 2019 and 2020 RAP graduates are currently employed.

Those victories are what keeps Burns motivated. The success rate should be a strong incentive to public officials to expand drug court initiatives like RAP.

A life-saving solution

Burns’ enthusiasm and commitment for the RAP program is what’s greatly needed throughout the country, as drug-related deaths skyrocket during the coronavirus pandemic.

During the 12-month period that ended in April 2021, there were 100,306 deadly drug overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 28.5% increase from the 78,056 drug overdose deaths during the same time period from the year before.

But drug courts, aimed at problem-solving rather than punishment, can be, for many, a life-saving solution that is a salve for the larger community.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals, as Main reported, concluded that “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.”

Burns also has a regular court call, which has included high-profile cases such as that of the former Northwestern University professor, Wyndham Lathem, whom Burns recently sentenced to 53 years in prison for stabbing his boyfriend to death in a case that garnered worldwide attention.

Not every judge will give out their cellphone number to drug offenders, like Burns does.

But if more of them were assigned to drug courts, they might follow his example as a public servant.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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