Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code

Subscribe to TASC News
Subscribe to TASC News
Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code

TASC Marks 45 Years of Advancing Health and Justice

(Chicago) – Incorporated on March 8, 1976, TASC, Inc. of Illinois is 45 years old today.

Across the decades, TASC has grown from a small pilot program in Cook County to an independent nonprofit reaching nearly 30,000 people across Illinois annually, and providing consulting and public policy advocacy to advance health access and justice reform in Illinois and across the globe.  

“TASC’s focus on social justice and public policy, along with quality service delivery across the state, is what makes the agency exceptional,” said Joel K. Johnson upon being named as TASC’s president and CEO as of March 1. With extensive leadership experience in substance use disorder treatment and child and family services, and a career dedicated to uplifting people in need, Johnson is poised to lead TASC into the future—a future that ties back to TASC’s earliest days.

Rooted in Social Justice

A convergence of social changes led to the inception of TASC. Melody Heaps, founder of TASC, had worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chicago Freedom Movement in the 1960s, and had become a community organizer working for civil rights and economic justice on the west side of Chicago. By the early 1970s, as heroin ravaged the city and criminal justice responses disproportionately targeted Black communities and people in poverty, the very families and neighborhoods with whom Heaps was working suddenly were being torn apart.

Individuals and organizational leadership whom Heaps had come to know through community development were falling into the snares of addiction and the justice system. “Before drugs were a factor in their lives,” Heaps recalled, “they had been engaged and active in their families and communities. Even though we only had a rudimentary understanding of the physiological nature of addiction that we have today, we still saw it as a disease….which rapidly escalated beyond the individual’s control. We saw it as a health issue that could be treated.”

Working with the Illinois Department of Mental Health, Heaps partnered with the Illinois Dangerous Drugs Commission and the Circuit Court of Cook County to apply for federal funding for a new program model that had been initiated in Washington, DC. It was called TASC.

National Origins

The TASC program model was a 1972 White House initiative funded through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), originally as a response to a prevalence of opioid-addicted veterans returning from Vietnam and ending up in court systems. 

LEAA (which is now the Bureau of Justice Assistance), along with White House’s Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), and what was later to become the National Institute on Drug Abuse, looked to interrupt drug use and property crimes by connecting criminal courts to community-based drug treatment. These discussions led to the creation of “Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime” (TASC) as a federal model program under the Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act of 1972. 

The TASC model was designed to divert people with addictions out of courts and into supervised drug treatment in the community. The first TASC program was established in Delaware in 1972, and other pilot programs soon followed.

TASC in Illinois

As one of these federally-funded pilot programs, TASC was launched in Cook County in 1976. It served as an independent agency linking the justice system to community-based treatment by providing assessment, treatment placement, and case management as an alternative to incarceration for people addicted to heroin and other drugs. Within five years, TASC had grown beyond Cook County to serve people in every jurisdiction in Illinois.

“TASC was founded on the ideals of social justice; we were a response to racist drug policies that targeted Black communities,” reflected Pam Rodriguez last year, citing a justice system that continues to disproportionately arrest and incarcerate Black people. In 1982, Rodriguez had joined Heaps in working at TASC, and played an integral leadership role in TASC’s expansion to juvenile courts and family services before succeeding Heaps as TASC president and CEO in 2009.

Built on these foundations, TASC of Illinois—its acronym renamed to stand for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities—continues to offer core services of clinical assessment, placement into needed services in the community, and ongoing client advocacy and specialized case management, all grounded in a steady commitment of diverting people away from government institutions and into health and recovery in the community. TASC provides these services, as well as outpatient substance use treatment services, recovery support advocacy, and telehealth services across a wide range of programs, from diversion and alternatives to incarceration to community reentry to youth and family services.

To advance health and justice on a broader scale, TASC’s state, national, and international public policy and consulting work focuses on systems change. Examples of this work include exposing racial disparities in the justice system, advancing Medicaid enrollment and treatment access for justice-involved individuals, hosting international delegations to promote alternatives to incarceration, and deflecting people with substance use disorders away from the justice system before an arrest occurs.  

Under the leadership of CEOs Heaps (from 1976-2009), Rodriguez (from 2009-2021), and Johnson, who assumed the reins on March 1, TASC has remained grounded in a tradition of client advocacy and a commitment to social justice.

Making a Difference

As it has throughout its history, TASC strives to offer solutions to pressing social issues at the juncture of health and justice. Today, amidst a global COVID-19 pandemic, an amplified national dialogue exposing the depth of systemic racism, and a deadly opioid epidemic that is raging across Illinois and disproportionately killing Black people on the west side of Chicago, TASC continues to fight for equitable access to services and hope for people with substance use disorders.

As recent examples of progress, TASC’s Family Recovery and Reunification Program (FRRP) reduced re-arrest rates among youth whose parents were involved in the program, and eliminated racial disparities in family reunification that had persisted in the control group. TASC’s advocacy for pre-arrest deflection to treatment not only has resulted in new outreach services for people at risk of overdose, but also in public policy advances: the sweeping criminal justice reform bill signed on February 22 by Governor JB Pritzker incorporates recommendations made by TASC's Center for Health and Justice to expand options for first responders to deflect individuals with substance use disorders to treatment.

Over the past 45 years, TASC has diverted tens of thousands of individuals away from justice system involvement and into treatment and recovery in the community, and has been instrumental in numerous state and federal initiatives to improve systems of health and justice. Looking ahead, Johnson points to the continued need to address underlying issues that affect people’s health and well-being, from service access to housing to economic opportunities. “Through direct services, public policy, and systems change initiatives, we will continue to address social determinants of health to better enable the recovery and well-being of the people and communities we serve.”

News Category