Judge Charles P. Burns of Cook County Circuit Court is usually in his courtroom presiding over tough cases, including the high-profile trial of William Balfour, who was convicted of killing Jennifer Hudson's family members. But this afternoon, instead of handing out prison sentences, Burns is handing out diplomas, smiling and giving hugs.
"They're my successes, they have all done everything they were supposed to do," Burns said.
Burns presides over the “RAP” program, which stands for Rehabilitative Alternative Probation. It's a tough two-year program that keeps drug addicts out of jail.
"This is what the criminal justice system is all about,” Burns said. “I see too much tragedy, despair and failure. Today we're gonna see success, inspiration and rehabilitation."
The program started in 1998. Since then more than 1,100 men and women have successfully finished. Graduates often get their jobs and families back, and some even have their convictions wiped from their records. Tyrone Evans lives on the West Side and used to be addicted to heroine.
"I got my life back together,” said Evans, 54. “I hadn't had my driver’s license in 27 years, I got my license, I got my car and I'm working and it feels great."
The two-year program involves a combination of support groups, therapy and community service. Participants are required to check in with Burns once or twice a month. Many of the adults graduating today have been addicts for most of their lives.
"I just can't believe I made it this far, said Lorie Marsh, a 46 year old who lives on the West Side. “This is actually the beginning."