By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
The county public defender's office has put fewer than five clients in drug court, even though Goulet praises the concept and raves about courts in the city of St. Louis and Kansas City, where most defendants are represented by public defenders. Jailing drug offenders and putting them on probation hasn't solved the drug problem, notes Goulet, so why not drop the demand for guilty pleas and get as many people as possible into drug court? "Guess what? We ain't got a lot to lose here," he says. "What we have here in St. Louis County is a prosecutor who wants to totally control a program that will end up dying in another year or two. For my clients and my attorneys' clients and for the good of the community, I need a viable program here. And I just don't have one right now. The issue is, there's resources out there that this community is bypassing right now. I do know if we do not use (the state money), we will not have it."
McCulloch isn't worried. "They can budget that money for somebody else who may want to start a drug court," McCulloch says. "There's no point in (that money) sitting here. It ought to be used."
State Rep. Quincy Troupe (D-St. Louis), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Social Services and Corrections, is threatening to yank funds for drug courts that require guilty pleas. In a recent letter to state prosecutors, he noted that such programs aren't part of a cohesive drug-control strategy. "Programs utilizing such local strategies reflect a waste of valuable state resources and time, and such programs are inappropriate for funding with scarce state resources," Troupe wrote in the Feb. 17 letter. Troupe also called on prosecutors who require guilty pleas to return all state money used for their drug courts. "Had such prosecutors not clung to such disproved plans of operation, the state would have received substantial benefits from drug court operations in these jurisdictions," he wrote.
McCulloch wasn't impressed. "I can't imagine a greater waste of valuable state resources than the time you spent on this memo," he wrote in a March 1 reply to Troupe. "Obviously, you have no understanding of how a drug court operates." McCulloch noted that the law allows prosecutors to decide who gets into drug court and under what conditions, so he won't be returning any state money. And he defended the county's drug court, despite the low number of participants.
"The system has served St. Louis County well for the past year and I will continue to require a plea of guilty from anyone who wishes to participate in drug court," McCulloch wrote. "Each drug court is designed to meet the needs of the particular community in which it is located. For some, that means allowing non-violent defendants into drug court who might otherwise go to prison. For others, such as St. Louis County, it does not."
Conroy says politics has something to do with the rein McCulloch keeps on drug court. "My perception of it is that there's more fear of a backlash in case of catastrophe -- and by 'catastrophe,' I mean someone in drug court going out and committing a murder," he says. "I think, politically, it's understandable that there's more risk, and you don't get elected by making risks on behalf of the accused. That's just the nature of the game. I think in the city, there's more of an understanding that something has to be done because the city court system is swamped. Plus, I think the city voters are going to be a lot less likely to punish the circuit attorney when they run for election, as opposed to voters in St. Louis County."
Like national experts, Conroy says drug court won't succeed unless defense attorneys and prosecutors drop their traditional adversarial roles and work together. "It's like a three-legged stool," Conroy says. "You've got the defense bar, the judiciary and the prosecutor's office. Unless the three legs are there, the stool's going to tip over; it's not going to work. And I think that's the problem in St. Louis County."
Eleven years after U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno launched the first drug court while a prosecutor in Miami, drug courts have become the darlings of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and corrections officials throughout the country. The number of defendants who've entered drug courts is approaching 150,000, and 98,000 have successfully graduated. Nationally, researchers say, about 70 percent of defendants enrolled in drug courts graduate, and fewer than 5 percent of the graduates have been rearrested. Drug court is so popular that Kansas City voters have approved a sales tax to help pay for it.
Drug courts relieve pressure on the criminal-justice system by getting defendants off criminal dockets, saving money for prosecutors, public defenders, the judiciary and the police, who can spend time in the street instead of courtroom corridors waiting to testify in drug cases. In addition to reducing the need for trials, drug courts reduce the need for prison beds -- that's one of the reasons the Department of Corrections supports drug courts. Since 1997, the agency figures, state-funded drug courts and other alternative-sentencing programs have kept 3,110 people out of prison and saved taxpayers about $13 million. In addition to financial advantages, there's a human benefit: More than 750 babies have been born drug-free to women enrolled in drug courts, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. At least 3,500 parents have regained custody of their children, and 4,500 have resumed paying child support since enrolling in drug court. The bottom line is, drug courts offer hope.