WILLIAMSON COUNTY — Williamson County State’s Attorney Brandon Zanotti has tried to become something of a problem solver in facing the opioid epidemic that faces the region.
“Very soon after I started in my position as State’s Attorney, I realized we had a major problem on our hands. I was seeing people who had a good job, a good family and a good past in court for committing crimes they would normally have nothing to do with,” Zanotti said.
The bottom line in many of these cases, Zanotti said, was addiction to opioids, either in the form of prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Percodan, Vicodin or Percocet, or in less regulated more dangerous street drugs like heroin.
Zanotti said that the bloom of heroin use in the region is directly related to opioid addiction.
“Let’s say a person injures their back and as part of the course of treatment gets a perfectly legal prescription for a painkiller from their doctor. Fast forward a few months and their back is healed but now they have an addiction, and no prescription, and so they begin to seek those pills by illegal means,” Zanotti said.
Zanotti said the cost of those pills at street level can be as much as $20 per pill, and often people suffering from addiction will turn to theft to pay for their habit. Others choose not to steal, but revert to buying heroin, which costs a fraction of the cost per dose.
Zanotti said he saw the same thing was happening all across the country, so to combat the problem in our region, he developed two pilot programs which have seen some success in other arenas: a Pre-trial Diversion Program and a Veteran’s Court.
Pre-trial Diversion Programs
In Pre-trial Diversion Programs, people with pending felony opioid charges determined to be suffering from addiction are offered pathways to reduced or dismissed sentences by agreeing to counseling and medical treatment.
“Our thought with this plan is to give those charged with a possession offense a chance to go through treatment before their case is called for trial. If they successfully complete treatment, then we will consider dismissing their case,” Zanotti said.
Zanotti said these diversions would not apply to those charged with illegally selling opioids, or related to a violent crime.
Zannotti said the pathway through this process includes an initial diagnosis of addiction from a qualified medical professional, and treatment which might include psychological counseling, medical intervention in the form of Buprenorphine therapy, or both.
Dr. Rakesh Chandra, who runs Rassik Complete Recovery, Inc. in Carbondale has been working with Zanotti to map out what the evaluation and referral process might look like for the Pre-trial Diversion Program.
“Chemical dependency is not a moral failing or a weakness of character. It is a chronic disease, much like diabetes or hypertension,” Chandra said.
But, Chandra said, it is a chronic disease that drives people to do terrible things that have terrible social repercussions.
“Is it a crime, or not a crime? It’s not always that simple. But Brandon is really brilliant. He realized early on that of perhaps every 10 people arrested, only two might be involved in dealing drugs and continuing the problem,” Chandra said.
Chandra said the other eight people in this scenario are victims, because addiction is an illness.
“It makes more sense to offer someone a way to heal and make amends than to keep them in jail where they will do their time and leave the system with the same potential toward addiction they entered it with," Chandra said.
Zanotti’s office has also developed a second program designed to handle cases involving veterans of the United States Armed Forces.
“If a person is arrested for a non-violent opioid-related crime and we find out in the initial intake that that person is a veteran, then we dig a little deeper,” Zanotti said.
Zanotti said if his office finds that the veteran has PTSD or another psychological issue that made them turn to alcohol or drugs, but for that the crime would not have been committed, they will refer them to Veteran’s Court.
Veteran’s court will be presided over by a single Judge, who will make decisions in each case and monitor each participant’s progress through the program.
Once admitted into the program, Zanotti said, a veteran will participate in counseling and physical addiction treatment programs with a specialized agent from the VA who understands combat related illnesses.
Upon successful completion of the program their sentence will be lessened or dismissed.
Zanotti said this program has been recently ”green lighted” by Judges from the 1st Circuit Court of Illinois and will handle cases from Alexander, Jackson, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Pulaski, Saline, Union and Williamson counties.
Zanotti said he expects Veteran’s Court will soon be up and running.
“We are working to determine who the presiding judge will be for Veteran’s Court, but our public defenders are on board and the VA is ready to step in at any time,” Zanotti said.
Zanotti said the most important thing the public can do to help in the face of this epidemic is to educate themselves.
“Take time to read about it and to talk about it. Learn what the signs of addiction might be and help steer friend and family to recovery programs if a problem is identified,” Zanotti said.
Additionally, Zanotti said, if someone has a doctor’s prescription for painkillers, it is important to keep track of how many there are and to store them out of the public eye.
“Keep a count of how many you take and how many are left. Don’t just leave them in the medicine cabinet or in an exposed area where anyone can handle them. And discard medicines no longer in use through a prescription disposal programs run by your town or county,” Zanotti said.
HARRISBURG — During a special meeting of the Saline County Board on Thursday, members will discuss a potential audit of an unidentified county office.
Stephen Carns, the board's parliamentarian, said he could not delve into the specifics of which office was under scrutiny, but said in the last four to six months, red flags have been thrown up regarding taxpayer money.
“There are indications that there may be funds that have not been properly accounted for,” Carns said.
He said the allegations are “serious” and that there are a “sufficient number of board members” on various committees who have concerns that county money has been mishandled.
Carns said he did not call the meeting, but did sign a petition to have the meeting called — he said a minimum of five members have to sign off on special meetings. The other four signatures were from commissioners Mike McKinnes, Joe Jackson, Benny Gibbs and Roger Craig.
Carns said he believed there would be time during the meeting for a representative from the accused office to address the board, however he was not sure of the specific agenda.
“I’m sure that the board would seek input with the office they are concerned with,” he said.
Carns did say that through such discussion the board could decide not to proceed with the proposed forensic audit, however he said he did not see this as likely.
“At this point in time, I believe the board would probably proceed with a full audit just simply to allay any concerns,” Carns said.
Carns said he knows board members have contacted several firms, but said he is unaware if a particular audit team has been chosen should the board vote to proceed.
Should the board vote to move forward with the audit, it would be only the most recent in a series of such investigations in Southern Illinois.
On Aug. 24, the FBI raided Zeigler’s City Hall, targeting treasurer Ryan Thorpe’s office, prompting the City Council to place him on administrative leave during a special meeting that very day. Details are sparse regarding the specifics of that investigation.
Similarly, earlier this year, newly-elected Franklin County Circuit Clerk Jim Muir called for a special forensic audit of his office after he could not adequately complete a past due state-required exit audit because of missing files.
Also, in 2016, Kindra Eickelman, 49, was ordered to pay $37,403 in restitution to cover the $23,121 she took from the Franklin County circuit clerk’s office between 2012 and 2014. Eickleman pleaded guilty to one count of official misconduct and one count of theft of between $10,000 and $100,000. She was arrested in 2014 after leaving her post and admitting to stealing from the office.
Saline County’s special meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in the county board room at the Saline County Courthouse.
HARRISBURG — Natalie Phelps Finnie, a nurse, wife and mother of three, has been named to fill the seat vacated by this past week's resignation of former State Rep. Brandon Phelps.
Phelps Finnie, a Democrat from Elizabethtown, is the daughter of former Congressman David Phelps and cousin of Brandon's, according to a news release from her office. Brandon Phelps announced his resignation on Friday, citing health reasons. He has held the seat since 2003.
Phelps Finnie has spent much of her career as an advanced practice nurse at the Gallatin Wellness Center, a school-based health clinic that often serves as a front-line care provider for many area children.
She plans to maintain the 118th district office in Harrisburg.
“Our area has given me so much, and I’ve always strived to give back," she said in a statement. "Growing up, my grandmother often quoted Luke 12:48: ‘To whom much is given, much shall be required.'"
"As a mother, wife and nurse, I know that service means putting others first. I never thought my path of service would lead me to represent our families in the Capitol, but more than anything I want to make sure Southern Illinois still has a leader who will make our voices and our values heard.”
Following closely on the virtual heels on Phelps Finnie's announcement as Brandon's successor was a comment from a would-be competitor, Patrick Windhorst. He is State's Attorney for Massac County.
“The 118th district is not the Phelps family seat," Windhorst said. "Southern Illinois needs change, not more of the same. Our voice in Springfield is too important to be handed down to the next available Phelps family member. Career politicians, political insiders and the Madigan-Phelps machine have gotten us into this mess. We need a conservative outsider to clean it up.”