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Several judges and lawyers, including some of the state's top jurists, blame St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. They say he doesn't really believe in drug court. They say he has engineered the county's drug court in such a way that it's destined for failure. McCulloch acknowledges he has doubts about drug court. He prides himself on a tough approach to law enforcement that includes heading the campaign for the state's 1994 truth-in-sentencing law requiring violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. McCulloch's father, a St. Louis police officer, was killed in the line of duty. His brother, cousin and uncle are also city cops, and his mother was a clerk in the department's homicide unit. Even as drug court was starting in the county, McCulloch last year worked to gut a state legislative bill aimed at diverting criminals from prison and putting them into work release, community service and drug treatment. At the time, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Prison overcrowding is not a concern of mine."
McCulloch's strict law-and-order persona is reflected in drug court, where he decides who will get in and under what conditions. He hasn't opened the door very wide. So while drug courts elsewhere save lives and money, McCulloch clings to a lock-'em-up philosophy at the expense of true rehabilitation.
McCulloch doesn't have a quick answer when asked whether he knows someone -- a friend, relative or neighbor -- with a drug problem. "You mean aside from the people I see coming into the courthouse?" he asks. "I'm sure I do. I can't think of anybody off the top of my head. I know people, certainly, who have alcohol problems."
Unlike prosecutors in Kansas City and the city of St. Louis, which boast the oldest and largest drug courts in the state, McCulloch requires defendants to plead guilty as charged before allowing them to enter drug court. If they complete the program, charges are dismissed on graduation -- until then, those who check their records will find they've pleaded guilty to felony charges. If they flunk out, they go straight to sentencing. McCulloch and the two county judges who've presided over drug court believe the threat of a swift sentence provides maximum incentive to get off drugs. "Frankly, these are people who have repeatedly, in most cases, attempted to kick their habit and have not been successful," McCulloch says. "The more incentive we can put on them to meet that goal, I think the better (off) we are. It makes no sense at all for me to not require a guilty plea." The two judges who have presided over county drug court back the prosecutor. "The reason I think it's important for them to plead prior to going to drug court, I think they need something to lose," says Judge Mark Seigel, who's been on the drug-court bench since January. "Otherwise, they don't have the incentive to succeed." Judge Maura McShane, Seigel's predecessor, says defendants in drug court need to give up something. "In our program, yes, they plead guilty," McShane says. "The way I view it, it's like putting them on probation."
The logic may sound sensible. Most of the nation's first drug courts didn't require pleas, but as the program has spread to more than 400 jurisdictions, about 70 percent of prosecutors now demand guilty pleas as a condition for admission to drug court. The trend disturbs state Auditor Claire McCaskill, who earned a national reputation by starting the state's first drug court in Kansas City nine months after becoming Jackson County prosecutor in 1993.
McCaskill says she considers McCulloch "a very dear friend" and has "incredible respect" for him as a prosecutor. "But Bob has not been -- and, I think, still is not -- a true believer in drug courts," she says. "Frequently, prosecutors are dragged kicking and screaming into drug court. This is not like the Hula Hoop. This is not going to go out of fashion. Because of the success, the funding's now available. What worries me is that people are going to be calling things drug courts that are not drug courts, which will hurt the success of the program. You're seeing people beginning drug courts who really don't believe in it. Those are the instances where you're seeing the programs that aren't performing as well. I just think Bob sees this differently. I've tried (convincing him). We just agreed to disagree. I just hope eventually he will become one of the converted."
McCulloch chuckles a bit at McCaskill's comments and admits he has reservations about drug court. "It's probably not a good characterization, although it's not completely inaccurate, either," he says. "Claire and I have had a discussion about the efficacy of drug courts for a long time. My concern is, no matter how successful it was during the participation of the individual in drug court, once it ends there's still no follow-up system there for these people. My concern is, we're going to have a lot of people falling back into the same ways they were. Unless we have a program like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), where anytime in the day or night you can find one, until we have a system like that, we're still going to have a fairly significant failure rate, I think. That's my real concern with drug courts." Never mind that the St. Louis telephone directory contains six numbers for Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, including two 24-hour toll-free help lines. And never mind that every drug-court participant is required to join a 12-step program, which he or she may continue indefinitely.