By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
It's another Wednesday afternoon in Commissioner Barbara Peebles' downtown courtroom, where 25 defendants are waiting their turn to speak to the judge. One by one, they approach the bench and tell their stories. For some, it takes a few minutes -- they're meeting with counselors every week, they're not flunking urinalysis tests, they're holding jobs or going to school. They walk out of court with free movie passes and praise from Peebles. Those doing especially well get rounds of applause from the courtroom. They leave wearing broad smiles.
Others are learning the hard way. Two defendants brought directly from jail are ordered into 30-day residential treatment beginning 9 a.m. the next day, as are a couple from the street who've failed urinalysis tests that can be given several times a week in the city's drug court. Though they've broken the rules by using drugs, not showing up for court or skipping required counseling sessions, Peebles gives each of them another chance. They remain in the program.
Then there's the cabdriver. He's been in drug court for more than a year and still fails his drug tests. He's in trouble, but he doesn't know how deep. He's about to find out.
Peebles, who's been doing this for a year, stares hard and listens silently as the cabdriver mumbles his excuses: It really wasn't his fault that his last drug test showed traces of heroin; he had a cold, you see, and it must have been the cough syrup; as for those missed meetings, well, he had to go to work. "You ought to know me well enough by now to know what I'm going to say next," Peebles tells him after he's finished. "I couldn't care less about your job -- I don't think you should be a cabdriver, period. If that's the best you can think of, you should have thought of something else before you walked in here." Peebles notes that the only times the man has tested clean in the past year were during a month of residential drug treatment and a stint in the City Workhouse. Outside custody, his tests have always shown cocaine and marijuana; now it's opiates -- someone with a drug problem as serious as his doesn't need to be driving around the city late at night, especially with innocent people in the backseat. Peebles puts him back on the criminal docket and sends him to jail do-not-pass-go-style with a $2,500 cash-only bond. "I think you just want to continue doing what you're doing -- it's that simple," the judge says as the bailiff prepares the handcuffs. "You have a serious problem. I don't think you allowed drug court to work."
Born of frustration at seeing addicts cycle in and out of prison as a result of unchecked drug problems, drug courts offer nonviolent drug offenders a choice. They can take their chances with the traditional adjudication process, or they can avoid a criminal record -- and jail -- if they enroll in drug court and stay clean for at least a year. They must submit to frequent urinalysis, attend group and individual counseling sessions, and see the judge as often as once a week. All told, the tasks can consume eight hours a week for the first few months, when treatment and supervision are most intense. If everything goes well, charges will be dismissed and they'll end up taxpayers instead of inmates.
Judging by experience, the cab driver will soon be pleading guilty to cocaine-possession charges that had been suspended while he was enrolled in drug court. Some would say the program has failed here, but Carl Pickens sees silver linings. For one thing, the fact that the cab driver kept his appointment with Peebles, even though he knew he could go to jail, shows that the main message is starting to sink in, says Pickens, who supervises treatment programs for the city's drug court. "We've created him to be responsible for his behavior," Pickens explains. "He has a court date. He knows he ain't did what he's supposed to do, but he knows what he needs to do, which is to show up for his court date. Any other time he knows he's screwed up, he's not going to come to court. Our clients do that because they get to a point of not viewing the court as a punitive situation for them. Drug court is not punitive. Drug court is helpful. We take irresponsible, unpredictable people and attempt to turn them into responsible and predictable people who can continue to live in this society. That's all we're doing."
Ten miles away, at the courthouse in Clayton, the folks who run the St. Louis County drug court are trying to do the same thing. But they haven't reached nearly as many people as the city, which has more than 300 offenders enrolled in drug court after three years. Nearly a year after drug court began in the county, 25 defendants have signed up for a program designed for 100. As of the end of January, St. Louis County -- at 1 million residents the state's most populous county -- had spent just $10,000 of a $492,000 state grant given to provide drug treatment for defendants in drug court.