CROWN POINT | One 2012 graduate of Lake County's new problem-solving court -- known as Community Transition Court -- looks back at about a dozen years of incarceration.
"I went from work release to rehab to prison," Scott Decker said of past experiences that led him to be declared a habitual offender.
The 38-year-old Highland man admitted to leading a life of crime driven by drug abuse.
"I was feeding my addictions," Decker said.
CTC does not reduce a prison sentence, but some months before his prison sentence was to come to an end, Decker became eligible for a program that assists inmates in returning to communities.
Decker wore a suit and tie to face Lake Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez, who innovated and presides over CTC.
"I don't want to screw up again," Decker said.
Today he's working full time as a union carpenter.
He is steering clear of drugs and is in a relationship with a woman.
"No more picking up cocaine," he said.
Decker gives much of the credit to Vasquez's "straightforward" approach. Along with that help, Vasquez helped restore Decker's driving privileges.
What that help does not include is any allowance for drug use. "Zero tolerance," Vasquez told newcomers to the court in recent weeks.
Backing that up, Vasquez expelled a man for using synthetic marijuana.
"I'm not taking you back," Vasquez told the man.
For those who successfully complete the program, Vasquez can release them early from parole, which can be several years.
Vasquez shares a caseload of about 50 with Lake Criminal Court Magistrate Kathleen Sullivan. The court has graduated a total of 37 since becoming active in May 2011.
To be considered a true graduate, an individual must have paid 75 percent of his program fees, have a job and be discharged from parole.
The court meets weekly, but as the inmates obtain employment and otherwise do well, meetings become less regular.
With the court now two years old, court security personnel are accustomed to seeing a group of spruced-up people, ties are required, heading to Vasquez's court every Monday.
But that's where the formality ends.
"It's a different tone, a different atmosphere, one-on-one," Vasquez said. "I love it. It's great. We talk. There are no attorneys."
The goal is to help them stay out of trouble, Vasquez said. Statistically, 60 percent of them will re-offend within three years. The goal is to get that down, he said.
"Do the right thing," he urges them. "Work real hard, like your life depends on it."
Community court works to help offenders work
Vasquez knows little of an individual's past when he or she enters his court, perhaps only how long a person has been in prison, and for what.
"I accept you as you are," he tells them.
"Did you get that license issue resolved?" he asks one man. "I see you got a job," he says to another. "Got a handle on that child support?" he asks yet another.
The Lake County court is unique among similar programs in the state in that the court may work with an individual for up to a year instead of six months, a feature Vasquez worked out with the help of the prison system.
Two case managers have been hired to work only CTC. Attorney Richard Wolter works on license issues on a volunteer basis, and Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter has "loaned" deputy prosecuting attorney Karen Villarruel to work with Wolter.
"The court adds an additional six months to transitioning to give them a better shot at making it when they get out," Lake Criminal Court Magistrate Kathleen Sullivan said.
CTC Coordinator Judy Love, of the county's Community Corrections unit, said the court has offered assistance in obtaining employment, resolving driving issues and developing life skills to reduce to recidivism rates and increase community safety.
"Some individuals have never been employed, yet have been given jobs through The Salvation Army and Goodwill to help build job skills," she said.
Love lauds area employers in providing employment opportunities.
"It helps them regain confidence in themselves and contributes to their overall success in the community," Love said.