By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
There is a 57-year-old man who breathes with the help of an oxygen tank. His wife and children have returned to him since he kicked drugs. He stands and shuffles to the front of the courtroom to give thanks. He says drugs would have killed him if he hadn't gotten help. "Without drug court, I wouldn't be here today," the man says. "I always said, 'I wish I could, I wish I could.' Drug court was the instrument that let me. I just want to thank Judge Peebles, everyone."
By the end, Prosecutor Geiler is crying. She says she always does at graduations. "Drug court is drug treatment," she says. "This is really about rehabilitation, which we've been forgetting in American justice for a long time. It's amazing. It's like, people with needs actually get their needs met, right then and there. It's so magical to have society doing what it needs to for people with problems. We're growing people up in our drug court."
Success depends on the determination of defendants and the creativity of court officials and treatment providers. It also relies on prosecutors and defense attorneys to drop their traditional adversarial roles. They don't say much in court, where most of the talking is between the defendant and the judge. Defendants aren't kicked out if they can't immediately kick drugs. A certain amount of backsliding is expected -- the judge decides just how much will be tolerated. Though the program is supposed to last a year, many defendants spend considerably longer in drug court as a result of failed urine tests or missed counseling sessions. If a defendant isn't doing well, the judge, with advice from the prosecutor, defense attorney and treatment expert, can tailor a program to individual need. That can include shock incarceration or residential treatment. It can even include basketball.
Dowd got a regular game going by picking players from drug court. "You'd see them on the bench, and you've got the black robe on and all this stuff -- you'd be doing your judge thing," Dowd recalls. "Some of these guys, they were just struggling so much. I'd say, 'Why don't you come and play basketball tomorrow?' They'd say, 'Oh, yeah, I don't know.' I'd say 'I'm not asking you: You come and play basketball. You put some tennis shoes on, put some shorts on, come out there and play with us. You be there.' Then I'd show up in tennis shoes and gym shorts. I'd be with four guys. I'd look at these guys and say, 'You've got one job to do here: Get me open and get me the ball. If I happen to miss, rebound and get me the ball back.' They'd all be kind of looking at me, saying, 'What in the hell?' Some of those guys never missed after that. It was fun for all of us." Of course, basketball doesn't work for everyone. When ordering a recalcitrant defendant to jail, Dowd does his best to make the time productive. "If they would come up dirty a couple times and we were getting to the end of the rope with them, I'd give them three days or 10 days in the City Jail," recalls Dowd, who still attends drug-court graduation ceremonies more than two years after leaving the city bench. "I'd talk to the jailers, and I'd say, 'No books, no radio, no TV. Single cell.' I would tell these people, 'When you're sitting in that cell, you write to me everything that has happened to you in your life that has caused you to be sitting in this cell today. Then you write to me everything that you're going to do to get yourself out of this jail cell so you never come back.' They'd say, 'OK, but I can do that in a day. What do I do the next day?' And I'd say 'Write it all over again -- take it from the top. I want five versions of this.' They would be mad as hell at me. But they came out of there very determined. Some of my most successful participants did that 10 days. Some, I was convinced they'd never make it."
Drug court in St. Louis takes on some difficult cases. "They haven't bought into living life," Dowd says. "It's a subculture. They live outside of the culture that you and I live in. They don't have drivers' licenses, they don't have car insurance -- I don't even want to talk about the questionable title to the automobile they drove to court that day. All of a sudden, the drug court gets them buying into the fact that they can live in this larger culture, that they belong in it, that the rules apply and that they can actually be fulfilled if they do it one day at a time."
Forty percent of the city's enrollees are 22 or younger, not old enough to have hit bottom yet, and so they're difficult to reach. They are overwhelmingly African-American, easy targets for police and too naïve to really understand that they'll never work for the post office or become a nurse or get a job as a schoolteacher if they flunk drug court and wind up with a criminal record. "They're out there making all kinds of crazy transactions, leaning in and out of cars, flagging cars down," says Pickens, the treatment supervisor for the city drug court.