BLOOMINGTON — People addicted to opioids have a new option besides going to jail in McLean County.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage unveiled details of Safe Passages, a program that encourages addicts to turn themselves — and their drugs — into law enforcement.
And, no criminal charges will be filed against them if they do.
In return, officers from the sheriff's office and the Bloomington, Normal and Illinois State University police departments will transport them to the crisis stabilization unit at Chestnut Health Systems for treatment.
The sheriff's department will go a step beyond what's offered in Safe Passages programs offered in other communities, said Sandage.
When the sheriff's department learns of a person who has survived an overdose, an officer and a substance abuse counselor will pay them a personal visit.
"Our goal is to go to their home within 24 hours and make our pitch for services and see how we can help them," said Sandage.
Work by the McLean County Opioid Initiative to address opioid abuse that has claimed nearly 80 lives since 2015 in McLean County began about 18 months ago, said Sandage, who was flanked at the news conference by officials from police agencies, the state's attorney's and coroner's offices, the health department and local health care providers.
Bloomington Police Chief Clay Wheeler said his agency welcomes the potential for positive change in an officer's contact with those addicted to opioids.
"We may have less crime to deal with and fewer calls for service" when more people receive treatment, said Wheeler.
McLean County Public Defender Carla Barnes called Safe Passages "beneficial in every way."
Drug users "aren't criminalized, but instead (are) treated for their addiction. This will save many lives and the outcome will be invaluable," said Barnes, adding the alternative to jail will change the relationship between police and drug users. "It will build trust," she said.
State's Attorney Jason Chambers views the treatment option as "another tool to help the community to address this issue which destroys people's lives, friends and families."
McLean County, like many communities across the country, has seen an increase in the number of people becoming addicted to opioids. In many instances, the drugs are initially prescribed by doctors.
Putting people in handcuffs rather than treatment does not address the core issues of addiction, said Chambers.
"The opioid crisis is not a problem we can just charge and arrest our way out of as the only solution," he said.
McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre said the new initiative represents the kind of collaboration the board had in mind when it developed the countywide Mental Health Action Plan in 2015.
The coordination between law enforcement with medical and substance abuse providers "is a step in the right direction," said McIntyre.
Officials urge that if you know someone who is battling drug addiction, to call local treatment agencies at 309-827-6026 or 309-888-0993.
Safe Passages is designed to help residents of McLean County. Chestnut's crisis stabilization center also accepts patients from outside the county for its medical detox and treatment program.