What about Bob?

Drug courts save lives and save money. That's not good enough for St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch.

In Missouri, 22 drug courts are in operation, another 17 are being planned and more than 850 people have graduated from drug courts, according to the Office of State Courts Administrator. Just 34 graduates have been rearrested or convicted of new crimes, for a recidivism rate of 4 percent. The U.S. Department of Justice says the recidivism rate is 45 percent for drug offenders who don't go through drug court.

It isn't easy, and it doesn't always work. In 1997, the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that research was insufficient to determine whether drug courts reduce recidivism and drug use. A 1998 Columbia University study also concluded that more research is needed but found plenty of promise: Drug courts provide more comprehensive and closer supervision of offenders than other forms of community supervision and decrease criminal behavior, even if defendants don't graduate. But there hasn't been much research on long-term recidivism rates, because drug courts are so new.

Still, results so far are encouraging. In St. Louis, for example, only seven of the 159 graduates of the drug court have been rearrested on new felony charges. The jury is still out on 280 defendants currently in drug court and another 59 who have skipped court dates and are being sought -- Commissioner Peebles will decide whether they'll remain in the program once they're caught. For those familiar with the workaday world of circuit court, these statistics constitute success.

Commissioner Barbara Peebles, who presides over drug court in the city of St. Louis: "I absolutely think drug courts work. Oftentimes in the criminal-justice system, you do not 
see the results of what you do as making a difference in the lives of people."
Jennifer Silverberg
Commissioner Barbara Peebles, who presides over drug court in the city of St. Louis: "I absolutely think drug courts work. Oftentimes in the criminal-justice system, you do not see the results of what you do as making a difference in the lives of people."

"We might have one of the better drug courts in the country," boasts Dowd, who started the city's drug court a year before moving to the appellate bench. "If the purpose is to get people out of the criminal justice system so they never come back, our numbers are stunningly good."

What Dowd began as an experiment aimed at nonviolent first-time drug offenders, with possession charges only, has been expanded to include sales cases, offenders with as many as three prior convictions, and property crimes in cases where the alleged offense is linked to drug use. Unlike most drug courts, the city's accepts all types of felonies, so long as the defendant isn't considered violent. With property crimes such as burglary, the victim must agree to drug-court placement, and the accused must pay restitution as a condition of graduation and case dismissal.

McCaskill considers drug court one of the best things she's done as an elected official. "Nothing has been more exciting for me in my career than what has happened with drug courts," she says. "I love putting bad guys in jail. To me, the highlight of my career as a prosecutor was when I got a life in prison without parole or when I got multiple life sentences on a rapist -- it really, absolutely warmed the cockles of my heart when that would happen. But once I began going to these (drug-court) graduations, they absolutely took precedence in terms of being my very favorite thing. The families are there watching. These same people you saw walking into court as shriveled-up crackheads, their shoulders are back and their eyes are bright and there's hope."

Drug-court graduations are marked by tears, smiles and hugs -- take the final scene of It's a Wonderful Life and double the emotion. On the first day of spring, soon-to-be graduates gather in Peebles' courtroom at 6 p.m. to receive praise and official notice that the charges against them will be dismissed. Most have dressed up for the occasion, and all 13 graduating defendants are here, even though it's not required. There is Earth, Wind and Fire instead of "Pomp and Circumstance," punch and cake next to the witness stand. About a dozen defendants who have enrolled in drug court during the past month sit in the back to see what they can accomplish if they try hard enough. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes begins her address on an intimate note. "On a personal level, as you sit there tonight, I sit there with you," she tells the packed courtroom. "I have realized in the past year how much substance abuse touches everyone's lives. God has blessed this community with this program." Though Joyce-Hayes doesn't specifically mention it, her son appeared in county court two months earlier and pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, a charge McCulloch wouldn't consider for drug court. Now the youth, a first-time offender caught with a half-pound of pot 12 days after graduating from high school, faces life with a felony record.

Joyce-Hayes leads the crowd in prayer: "God grant me the power to...." Peebles hands out certificates and hangs a silver medallion around the neck of each graduate. One woman dressed in her Sunday best breaks down in sobs as the judge tells her story to the crowd. It's been tough -- she's been in drug court since August 1998 as a result of cocaine charges, and she's relapsed several times. Now, finally, she has a job and respect from her relatives, who sit near the front row, snapping pictures. She hugs Peebles with her eyes closed, tears streaming down cheeks creased by a mile-wide smile. Her mother hands her a bouquet. Then the woman tells the crowd what drug court has meant to her, about the dark day when she phoned her drug counselor from a crack house and the hope she has now. "When I first came to drug court, I wasn't ready to stop getting high," the woman says. "I didn't know what it took to stop getting high." She pauses, trying to bring herself under control. "I just want to thank my mama for just being here," she says. "Today, I feel so beautiful inside."

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