By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
Pickens, an addict who's been in recovery for 12 years, roams the courtroom at will, chatting with defendants before they speak to the judge and taking them outside if they need to discuss something in private. Defendants constantly call him over to ask questions or just tell jokes. "He's one of the ones who actually seem to care," says one defendant who's been in drug court for nearly two years and is due to get a marijuana charge dismissed when he graduates in two weeks. "A lot don't care whether you graduate or go to jail -- some of them are just 'Fuck it, I'm here to do a job.'"
"If nothing else, I will have them at ease before they see the judge," Pickens says. "I tell anybody: I'm a dope fiend; I just don't use dope today. A lot of these clients have a problem with the judicial system. I'm not judicial. They're not intimidated by me. They know I'm trying to help them. Carl is the treatment, and Carl's a dope fiend."
It's a far cry from a traditional courtroom. Those who work here are convinced they're accomplishing good. "I absolutely think drug courts work," says Peebles, who was a city prosecutor for more than five years before becoming the drug-court judge. "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. For me, it has been far more fulfilling in that aspect (than being a prosecutor)."
Every Tuesday, a group of St. Louis County drug-court defendants gathers in Bridgeton for a three-hour counseling session that lasts until 9 p.m. Tonight is nutrition night, so everyone has brought something healthy to eat -- corn chips, fruit, spaghetti, California rolls, Nutri-Grain bars. They talk about the basic food groups, how methamphetamine kills your appetite, how pot gives you the munchies, how IV drug use collapses your veins. Several of them also give urine samples before they leave.
These aren't street-corner hustlers with no prospects. Most of the 10 people here have jobs, and some have kids. Some are in school. They're grateful for drug court. "The best part of it is, you get the felony off your record, so I can still be a pilot," says one of the younger men in the group. Cindy, who is earning her master's degree in social work and wants to be a lawyer, says she thought her life would be ruined when she and her fiancé were arrested. Maintenance workers who came to fix a plumbing problem while they were away from their apartment called the cops after finding what Cindy describes as "a shitload of pot." "As they were reading me my rights, my future flashed in front of my eyes, and it wasn't pretty," she says. "I am completely grateful I can still go to law school after this."
Cindy, who's been in drug court for 10 weeks, says she hasn't smoked pot since the bust, nine months ago. All she wants is to get out of drug court as quickly as possible and go on about her life. Until she graduates and her case is dismissed, her run-in with the law will show up as a conviction if anyone checks her record. She's terrified someone she knows will spot her in the courthouse and start asking questions. She has to make up excuses whenever her friends ask her to go out -- she's in counseling sessions or 12-step meetings at least three nights a week. Now that she's over the rush that she's not going to have a record, drug court is, well, a drag. "I wanted to have a glass of wine on my birthday, and it annoyed me," she says.
The golden boy of the group is Dan, a 20-year-old construction worker from Ballwin who has not failed a single urine test since entering drug court nearly a year ago. He's made all his required meetings, and tonight is his last group session -- he's due to graduate on April 13 along with two others. They will be the county's first drug-court graduates, and Dan lists his demands for the ceremony. "Cocky" is an understatement. He wants his portrait hung in the courthouse, an official proclamation, karaoke, a tractor pull and a round of beers with Judges McShane and Seigel. When counselor Sandy Janzen suggests pop instead of beer, he feigns outrage. "Pop?" he cries. "You can drink pop. After I graduate, you have no more say over me." Janzen and the rest of the group smile. The truth is, drug court has completely changed Dan.
When police arrested him after finding a quarter-gram of cocaine in his wallet during a drunken-driving stop, Dan was on the verge of losing his job, even though his father owns the company. He remembers stumbling around job sites, peering through surveying equipment only to discover he'd forgotten to set up the stakes. He was paid $800 every Friday and broke by Monday. Since drug court, he's bought a new pickup and enrolled in classes to earn his high-school diploma. "Before, if I had to work overtime, it was 'Son of a bitch!'" he says. "Now, I say, 'That's money in my pocket.' It's not just about getting people off drugs. It's pretty much like life court. It pretty much changed everything. It actually helps you out with dating. Before, I'd take a girl out, the first question was, 'You smoke pot?' She'd say no, and that would be it -- time to go home."