It was time to take a vote.
“Should we let him in?” asked James Sullivan, commissioner for the St. Louis Drug Court. “I say yes.”
Sullivan raised his hand slightly above his white tousled hair and looked over his glasses at the other six people sitting around the table.
“That’s a shocker,” teased Rochelle Woodiest, the former circuit attorney's drug court director.
The case was a man who abused cocaine and alcohol and had serious mental health problems. He would require a lot of attention, Sullivan told the drug court team, but the man fit all the criteria.
The probation office representative and Woodiest did not raise their hands in favor.
Jeremy Farishon, the public defender assistant, confidently said, “Yes.”
“Big surprise,” Sullivan said, smiling at him.
Both Sullivan and Farishon knew that if this man did not get drug treatment, he would end up right back in the public defenders’ office.
Then right back in jail.
This vicious cycle was the reason Missouri established drug courts in 1993, and Sullivan has seen many cases of people permanently turning their lives around.
That put the vote at two against two.
The tie breaker was Mickey Williams, the drug court administrator. “I think you should let him in,” she said.
Sullivan nodded and shuffled his papers with satisfaction.
Williams, who served 18 years as an associate circuit judge in Jasper County, Mo., turned to a reporter and said, “It’s like a family – not just us, but the participants, too.”
The drug court family has a common goal – to look at people three-dimensionally, said Drug Court Commissioner Michael Noble.
“Most of the people who get into drug court have burned every bridge because they’ve been couch-surfing and have no other support,” Noble said.
“In a regular courtroom, they are in and out. Here, we’re going to be with that person for at least 11 months. It’s like running a marathon. And when the person falls and breaks an ankle, we’re going to stop, fix it and then carry on.”
A recent report released by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers criticized the effectiveness of drug court programs. It states that nationwide drug courts are not accessible to minorities or the poor, and the courts mainly serve middle-class offenders who want to clean up their criminal records.
Another criticism is that the prosecuting office makes the decisions about who gets in.
Even City of St. Louis leaders question the efficiency of the drug courts.
In a January 26 Board of Aldermen Ways & Means Committee Meeting, eliminating the City’s $325,000 subsidy to the drug court was discussed.
When Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett asked whether the drugs courts would still be able to function without the subsidy, Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor of development, said, “The bigger question is whether we need drug courts at all.”
STL: No. 1 in drug courts
Missouri is currently the national leader in drug courts – both in numbers with 122, and for being the first and most cutting-edge, said Ray Price, chief justice of Missouri Supreme Court.
In St. Louis, about 80 percent of participants are black. And though graduation rates are below 50 percent, Sullivan said it attests to the fact that the St. Louis drug court does not cherry-pick those who will give them a higher success rate.
“We don’t take easy cases,” Sullivan said. “I can’t say it doesn’t happen other places.”
The St. Louis drug court currently has almost 300 participants.
Drug courts are treatment-based alternatives to prison, youth services facilities, detention centers, jails and standard probation models. In Missouri, drug courts started in 1993 in Jackson County as a response from criminal courts that were seeing the same repeat offenders over and over.
The drug court graduation on Nov. 20, 2009 commemorated 60 graduates for the past year. Many of them spoke about the difficulty of staying in the program for the full course, as well as the difference it made in their lives.
“I made a mistake. I’m thankful for my two months in jail because I was taught so much,” said Leroy Prater, age 20.
“For us to change from the inside and grow on the outside, it’s a miracle. I grew up on the streets, I didn’t understand nothing.”
Rolling with the wrong crowd, he said he’s seen drugs take away the lives of many people around him. Although people tell him he’s young and should be partying, drug court has him on a different path now.
“Drug court introduced me to an inner person that I didn’t know was there,” Prater said. “I love this person. I love the opportunity to get to know him.”
Jobs and costs
In St. Louis, heroin is on the rise and making a mark on the drug courts.
Twirling a pen and reading a file at the drug team’s meeting table, Noble said, “Whoo, heroin.” The file showed a lengthy paragraph of convictions for selling drugs and burglary.
Noble pointed to a 1994 charge, the man’s first one, and said, “That’s when he should have been entering this program.”
Now the man will enter the program at the post-plea level, the last step to prison for people facing 10 years to life.
“It’s refreshing when people succeed and say great things about the program, but even more studies will show, two years later, the benefits of this person graduating,” Noble said. “They go out and get jobs.”
The cost to incarcerate a person each year is $13,000 to $16,000. To pay for a drug court graduate, it’s about $7,800.
“It’s not cheap, but from an economic and social-stability perspective, drug courts are here to stay,” Noble said.
However, the overall costs of drug court exceed those of probation cases. Adding together expenses of administration, supervision, drug and alcohol treatment, court hearings, urinalysis, and pretrial detention, it costs an average of $7,793 for a drug court graduate to successfully complete drug court – compared to an average of $6,344 for an individual to successfully complete probation. That’s $1,449 per person more for drug courts.
The study shows that the immediate costs are more, but the long-term savings over four years after graduation – which factors in people getting steady jobs – are much more cost-effective than probation.
“There’s a lot of money spent on setting the people up with resources and teaching them how to fish,” Noble said. “If a person says, ‘I want a GED,’ then we tell them where, how and check up on them to make sure they are attending classes.”
After they graduate, if participants want a job, the drug court team gets them in job training.
“We’re taking on a role that no one has done for them before and removing the obstacle of addiction,” Noble said. “We take care of everything so the individual can focus on the treatment.”
Although this seems expensive, it’s really a give and take. Without drug courts, the case loads on public defenders would increase and the police departments would be overwhelmed, he said.
“The first challenge was getting people to accept that this was the best response to drug-driven crime,” said Ray Price, chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. That especially includes legislators, he said.
On January 20, Speaker of the House of Representatives Ron Richard invited two drug court graduates to speak before the General Assembly.
“Speaking to the General Assembly is reserved for U.S. senators, and this was the first time people had the opportunity to talk about second chances in life,” Richard said. “I was so impressed with the drug courts that I invited two graduates to inform people statewide.”
Richard also said that he would talk to City of St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay about any proposed subsidy cut from the drug courts.