Trick or Treatment

Court-ordered classes for two-bit crooks: Are they a waste of time and money?

Just before six o'clock on a frosty December evening, Carol scurries into a chilly classroom in St. Peters. The dark-haired instructor sheds her coat, revealing a short-sleeved maroon pantsuit, and pleads, "Can't we get some heat in here?

The owner of the company, which offers a host of court-ordered treatment programs for petty criminals, gives this brusque reply: "What for? They're only going to be in there a couple hours anyway."

The owner's leaving the building. With a Coach purse dangling from her forearm and car keys jingling in her hand, she says, "Well, we're not turning the heat on." Then, directing her comments to a few students who've arrived early, she points toward the receptionists hovering in the lobby and concludes, "But if you get too cold, go talk to the girls out there."

Mark Andresen
Mark Andresen

The class for small-time crooks, taught by Community Services of Missouri Inc., commences with clipped remarks from Carol. "I've taught this class a long time. I also do substance-abuse treatment and behavior-type classes."

Carol proceeds to explain the first activity: Each of the ten offenders must divulge what they thought before and after the crime. They must recite how many times they've committed this type of offense and whether they were high at the time.

"But please," she cautions, "don't reveal where you stole from, because, you know, the point of this is not to figure out who's easy to rip off." The line elicits a chuckle from the assemblage, ranging in age from early twenties to mid-forties.

The tutorial in "financial management," as it's called, is for shoplifters, two-bit thieves and people who pass bad checks. These penny-ante criminals are here because they got caught and a judge ordered them to attend, supposedly to learn about "alternative behaviors" to stealing and how to handle money.

Among those in attendance is Kay, who pilfered printer-ink cartridges and returned them for cash; Tom, who wrote bad checks to buy heroin; and Jay, a bespectacled man who made off with four steaks from a Schnucks supermarket.

"I had the money. But I was between jobs," a nonchalant Jay tells the class. "It was cheaper, that's all. I wanted four steaks on the grill for my family's dinner."

The somber-faced Carol doesn't press for details and lets the more reticent folks get away with saying little.

Still, the confessionals drag on for a half-hour before Carol takes a seat, assumes a hunched pose and begins a rambling lecture, which, at its climax, likens stealing to the behavior of a terrible two-year-old.

"When you steal, you're just getting what you want," she says. "You're not using your intellect. And the thing that separates us from animals is an intellect. We need to use it."

Though she's taught the class for some time, Carol appears tired and annoyed by it all — and still, there are three long hours to go.

"OK, guys," she resumes after glancing at her watch. "I'll tell you what: If you don't tell anyone out there, because I don't want to lose my job, I'll let you out of here at eight-thirty. Can you keep the secret?"

The students exchange impish glances.

"As long as you don't feel ripped off. Do you feel ripped off?"

"OK," she concludes. "Let's take a ten-minute break."

Few people are aware of shoplifting classes, but in the past three decades, along with anger management, these kinds of sessions have become a de rigueur punishment doled out by municipal judges.

A touch of schooling and a dash of therapy, the philosophy goes, can treat every little human aberration — for a price.

Pass a check in someone else's name, or siphon ten gallons of gas, and the cost is $65 to $100 for a three-to-six-hour class. Slap a spouse or talk back to a police officer, and the fees range from one to several hundred dollars for an anger management course, also known as "domestic-violence education."

If the class is successfully completed, judges typically reward the guilty with a suspended imposition of sentence, or SIS, and the conviction is erased from the books.

Many petty criminals are never sent to the sessions since municipal judges in Missouri can instead fine them up to $500 for their misdeeds, enriching city coffers in the process. But numerous judges order youthful and first-time offenders to the programs.

In the process, the judges are fueling a burgeoning cottage industry, one that is "highly competitive, just like anything, selling tires or any other product," notes Mike Smith, president of St. Charles-based Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services Inc. (EMASS).

"You come out of the court in Jefferson County," observes one St. Louis criminal defense attorney, "and you've got these service providers coming up to you left and right. They're like drug dealers pushing their products: 'Take my class.' 'Take my class.' It's kind of sick."

Dozens of firms operating offender-education programs throughout Missouri are unregulated. There is no standardized curriculum, no required credentials for the instructors of these quasi-public courses. (One exception: the Missouri Department of Mental Health oversees a class called SATOP, the Substance Abuse Traffic Offender Program, for people with drunk-driving offenses.)

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