Missouri Drug Courts offer second chance
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Missouri Drug Courts offer second chance

Date: December 2, 2009
By: Cheston McGuire
State Capitol Bureau
Links: Corrections Department Web site

JEFFERSON CITY - When Melody Aber was 36, she had her three children taken away from her when her Kansas City drug dealer called the Social Services Department after she stopped buying from him.

As Aber tells her story, it was excessive drinking and smoking marijuana, crack cocaine and crystal meth that led her down a path of destruction. Aber said if not for the Missouri family drug court, she "would have ended up dead."

Nearing her 38th birthday and now living in Independence, Aber has regained custody of her children, ages 3, 4 and 16, and she has been clean and sober for one year and nine months.

Her story is just one of many in Missouri's drug court system that currently boasts a 50 percent graduation rate with only a 10 percent rate of relapsing, said Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine said, "Drug courts are an excellent program" that provide more opportunities for people because of the tools they have at their disposal for recovery.

Price, who is also the chairman of the Missouri Drug Court Commission, said drug courts are "the best strategy for recovery and reduction of crime relating to drugs."

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, however, opposes the drug courts because, as Rick Jones, the co-chair of the problem solving court task force, said, addiction is a mental health issue, not a criminal one.

"There is a problem that we as a society have found, it easy and convenient to dump our problems of the criminal justice system where it doesn't belong," said Rick Jones, the co-chair of the problem solving court task.

Because of the amount of cases that go before judges dealing with drug courts, "the criminal justice system comes to a stand still," he said.

Penny Clodfeather, the administrator of the Missouri Association of Drug Court Professionals, said these courts are important though because it addresses parents who have substance abuse issues that put children at risk.

After being entered into the program, Aber had to go to weekly treatments, meetings and drug testing, which she said gave her the structure she needed to get her children back. By participating in these activities and others, such as psychiatric treatment, family therapy and parenting classes, she was able to have her family back.

In order to get this help though, Jones said, people have to plead guilty to crimes for admission into drug courts. He said someone should not be forced to plead guilty so they can get help.

Started in April 1998 in Missouri, drug courts have graduated 7,991 people from its 108 programs with 1,201 since July of last year, Clodfeather said.

Jones said these numbers are inflated. Because prosecutors are concerned with keeping up their numbers, they tend to allow those who are most likely to succeed, yet need it the least. While people who need drug courts the most aren't getting in. "Repeat offenders need drug court. They are truly addicted."

Jones said that while prosecutors make sure that the numbers of successful cases in drug courts "inflated," they also prosecute those cases they are most likely to win. "It's much easier to get a conviction of a guy with 10 prior convictions rather than a guy with one," he said.

For these problems to solved, Jones said there needs to be standardized admissions that are fair and equal. He said there is no true statistic to show whether the courts are open to all races, genders, and classes, but he has found that generally it's not.

By preventing future drug convictions and social service costs through rehabilitation, Clodfeather said, the program saves taxpayer dollars.

Price said including all the overhead costs in both prison and drug court, drug court costs from a fourth to a third of sending someone to prison. He said it usually costs $7,000 a year to put someone through the treatment of a drug court, while it costs anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 a year to keep someone in prison.

According to the Corrections Department's Web site, there are currently are 5,588 prisoners sentenced for drug crimes. This contrasts to 2,544 in drug court programs.

"With the program, people are able to be successfully monitored in the community without taking up bed space in prison," Lapine said.

Not only are there immediate dividends in terms of money saving, said Clodfeather, but there are long term savings as well. "Once they aren't a burden to society, they can contribute to society," she said.

One problem that these courts currently face is a budgetary one. The budget for the drug courts in 2010 is set at $5.4 million while there have been $10.1 million worth of requests, according to Clodfeather.

These funds, which come from the state, the federal government, and local communities, are "not funded at a level that would benefit people," said Price.

The process doesn't end when treatment does.

Aber has started an alumni support group because she said, "If no support system is there after you leave, you just don't know what to do." This lack of help can lead some to relapse, she said.