Drug epidemic plagues area

• Heroin use rises sharply; pales in comparison to cocaine, major factor in jail overcrowding

The Rockford area is in the midst of a heroin epidemic “that has evolved recently and rapidly,” according to Kathleen Kane-Willis, Roosevelt University researcher at the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs.

However, although The Rock River Times research supports Kane-Willis’ conclusion about the Rockford area’s heroin epidemic, cocaine is a much larger problem.

In addition, planners for the county’s proposed $93-$130 million, 900- to 1,500-bed jail and alternative treatment programs acknowledge the scope of the drug problem has filled the jail with drug users and property crime offenders who steal to support their habits.

Jail tax

Of the estimated $23.1 million the jail tax is expected to generate annually, about 9 percent, or $2.1 million, of the jail tax is slated for jail alternatives and crime prevention. Specifically, $1 million is slated for programs in the jail, and $1.1 million is for community-based programs.

Building, staffing and maintaining the new jail is allotted $9.7 million, or 42.8 percent, of the expected $23.1 million; banks that facilitate selling the jail construction bonds may receive about $8.3 million, or 36.1 percent; and hiring more criminal justice system workers may receive $3 million, or 13 percent, of the jail tax money, according to Steve Chapman, county administrator.

Drugs by the numbers

Dominic Iasparro, Rockford Police Department deputy chief, estimated that more than 75 percent of the crimes police deal with are related to drug trafficking, from violent crime to property crime. Iasparro echoed statistics by saying police have seen “a lot more heroin, especially in the last few months.” However, Iasparro said cocaine, especially crack cocaine, remains the area’s “No. 1 drug problem.”

Using Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) data, The Rock River Times research indicates heroin treatment admissions to area drug treatment centers increased from 90 in 1994 to 435 in 2002—an increase of 383 percent. Kane-Willis used similar data and found admissions jumped from 37 in 1992 to 429 in 2000—an increase of 1,059 percent.

Kane-Willis emphasized that Rockford is facing a serious problem because of the alarming rise in numbers among the very young and older users. Kane-Willis said the youngest users, age 20 and younger, represent “the largest and absolute numbers as well as the largest percent increases.” In addition, users older than 40 years “became initiated to heroin during the 1970s, and this group had the second highest increases.”

Although increased heroin use may be a barometer for future crime rates, cocaine treatment numbers were nearly triple heroin treatment numbers in 2002 in Winnebago County. Cocaine admission numbers increased from 1,006 in 1994 to 1,268—a 26 percent increase. Also, cocaine admission rates in the county are twice the state average (see graphs).

Meeting comments

Frank Ware, executive director of Janet Wattles Mental Health Center and former chairman for the committee examining jail alternatives and crime prevention, said Jan. 29 his committee members were “very moved” by the “numbers of people” in jail and “constants” among inmates. Ware described the constants as unemployment, lack of education, substance abuse and mental illness.

Ware’s comments about inmates with substance abuse problems were echoed by Dr. Barry Spiegel, vice president of Medical Services and medical director of Rosecrance Health Network. Spiegel said “drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are implicated in crimes and incarceration of 80 percent of the men and women behind bars nationwide.”

Review team

Greg Tuite, a local attorney and chairman of the review team that will recommend which agencies will be eligible to provide services to inmates, said they received 20 applications for the $1.1 million in grants in mid-March.

Tuite said the review team will be recommending agencies that can provide services for health care, family counseling, GED training, job training, mental health, and substance abuse.

Tuite expects the recommendations will be made soon to enable those selected to prepare for action beginning in July. As to the small amount allocated for the services, Tuite said his team and committee have to work with the amount they were assigned.

However, Winnebago County Board member Jim Hughes (D-11) appeared to express most participants’ sentiments at the Jan. 29 jail alternatives meeting at Memorial Hall when Hughes said: “It’s been my position all along—I think we’re spending way too much money on a jail and not enough on alternative programs. …

“I encourage you to ask the county board for more money. I’ll be there to support more money because the only way we’re going to solve this problem in our community is with alternative programs and not filling up our jail cells,” Hughes said.

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