By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
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McCulloch acknowledges the county was slow to institute drug court, which began in April of last year, nearly two years after the state made funding available and two years after St. Louis started its program. He says part of the delay was a result of his insistence that none of the money be spent on new employees. "We wanted to do it right," he says. "One of the concerns I had and one of the delays, frankly, in starting a drug court in the county was, there were certain people and agencies who wanted to spend a lot of money hiring a commissioner and an assistant commissioner and various court personnel. My resistance, one reason it was delayed as long as it was, was 'Look, if we've got money, we should be spending that on treatment. We've already got plenty of judges, plenty of commissioners, plenty of prosecutors and attorneys to handle this. We don't need more bodies.' That delayed it, actually, a pretty significant period of time until they kind of came around on that."
That hardball stance -- and the fact that drug-court funding is in jeopardy because the county has spent just 2 percent of the state money for treatment -- worries Shawn Goulet, head of the county public defender's office. Goulet and others in the defense bar accuse McCulloch of killing drug court by demanding too much control over the program and refusing to listen to judges, defense attorneys and others who have tried persuading him to loosen up. "Bob may have backed himself into a situation where he just doesn't want to say yes now, no matter what," Goulet says.
Though Goulet and others say McCulloch's insistence on guilty pleas is a mistake, the prosecutor says he needs the pleas to ensure he won't have problems if defendants flunk drug court. "There is no expense of a trial," he says. "We don't run into a situation where we can no longer locate witnesses or witnesses don't have the same recollection of the event that they may have had before. We don't have a problem with not being able to locate evidence or anything at all."
Neither do prosecutors in St. Louis, because cases assigned to drug court are usually slam-dunks. Of the approximately 800 cases that have been assigned to the city's drug court, not one has ended in a trial. City prosecutors say 77 percent of the 300 defendants who have flunked drug court have pleaded guilty as charged and that there's no reason to expect anything different from pending cases. Just 12 cases against defendants who flunked have been dropped -- in at least one case because a defendant died, says Jane Geiler, drug-court prosecutor. Geiler says city prosecutors were also concerned that defendants who flunked out of drug court might somehow escape punishment if they didn't plead guilty, but those fears have evaporated. "'Get people to plead guilty, admit to the facts up front to come into drug court,'" Geiler says. "That's the prosecutor's cry -- 'We might lose in the end, have all kinds of trouble with our evidence and so forth.' The bottom line is, we're not losing, because if they flunk out of drug court, they're pleading guilty."
Prosecutors in Kansas City report similar experiences. "You stay in drug court three or four months, you get kicked out, they put you back on the criminal docket as if you never went to drug court," says Mike Rader, who once served as drug-court prosecutor and now tries cases. "We haven't had any troubles as far as a case going stale. I have not experienced any problems as far as being unable to prosecute a case effectively because of drug court."
When she was Jackson County prosecutor, McCaskill believed in getting as many defendants as possible off criminal dockets and into drug court, so she didn't require guilty pleas. Like prosecutors in St. Louis city, McCaskill says she wasn't giving up anything. Cases against drug-court defendants are easily won -- all it usually takes is the arresting officer, the lab technician who tested the drugs and a safe place to keep the evidence, she says. "A vast majority of these cases are easy to make, no matter when you take them to court," she says.
Several judges outside St. Louis County who disagree with McCulloch's plea-first policy say the way the county operates is better than nothing but that the city's drug court is preferable because more people get the best shot possible at kicking drugs. "I'd rather see them go pre-plea," says Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr., who has led efforts to promote drug courts. "Most judges prefer a pre-plea program. If the prosecutor in a county just doesn't think he can do that, post-plea at least gets people treatment instead of putting them right in jail. It's second-best." Another judge outside the county -- who's been on the bench longer than McCulloch has been a prosecutor -- says he hopes the county will eventually give defendants a chance in drug court even if they don't plead guilty. "I don't want to beat up on Bob McCulloch," says the judge, who is reluctant to go on the record because he doesn't want to say anything that might discourage a prosecutor who has been slow to embrace drug court. "I think he can still be convinced. I hope he can, because I think it's the best thing."