Trick or Treatment

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

shoplifting and anger-management classes

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."

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.)

According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention in Jericho, New York, shoplifting costs retailers $25 million a day, yet no state has certified offender-education programs tailored to the crime. The group will soon begin a lobbying effort to convince state and federal governments that more effective programs are needed.

In Missouri, offender-ed instructors run the gamut, from state-licensed counselors to moonlighting secretaries. No one seems to know whether the programs work.

With so few barriers to entry, virtually anyone can start a petty-crime-treatment company.

"I could write a curriculum this afternoon. Anybody could," confirms Jane Browning, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Corrections Community Association, a nonprofit that promotes best-practice policies for criminal rehabilitation programs.

"There's no way that we in this office will ever know about all those programs," adds Ann Wilson, the alcohol and drug abuse coordinator for the Office of State Courts Administrator in Jefferson City. "There's just too many of them, especially in the metro areas."

In essence, judges control the flow of business, allowing one or several companies to place representatives in their courts and enroll clients after they're sentenced. The practice has become so institutionalized that many judges rarely converse with the program directors.

"I couldn't even tell you the names of the companies that are here [in my court]," muses Brentwood Municipal Judge Ron Hill.

What's more, judges say they know little about what takes place during offender-education classes. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a judge who has even attended a session.

"I don't know of any judge that has," confirms Judge Ron Brockmeyer, who presides over four St. Louis County municipalities. Judges say they're satisfied, just as long as the treatment companies return to court their participants' class-completion certificates.

"I'm consternated that not a lot of the judges have been to the programs, and they just let the court liaisons come in and do their business there," says former St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Anna Forder.

Cautions Mike Gunn, Manchester's municipal judge: "State regulation might not necessarily be a good thing. The question is, what do the programs aim to do, and are they successful?"

That's almost impossible to know, since companies don't keep track of repeat offenders.

"That'd be a nice thing to know," allows Alan Carney, clinical director of St. Peters-based Community Services of Missouri Inc.

At a recent three-hour EMASS anger-management seminar in Florissant, the instructor opened by stating: "By attending this class you will satisfy the conditions of the court, but after three hours, if you really do have an anger-management problem, you're not going to leave here with a cure."

Beth Huebner, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, whole-heartedly agrees. "The programs that work are two to three months or longer. It's like weight-loss. You couldn't just go to a three-hour class and change your eating habits."

In Hazelwood, a shoplifting instructor for Midwest Counseling Service Inc. notes that his six-hour class used to be full of Bosnians unable to speak a word of English. "I don't know what they were doing in here," he mutters, adding that the curriculum, replete with hoary 1980s videos, hasn't been updated in his nine years with the company.

"I think it's mostly people with drug habits going to these classes to get their sentences reduced," postulates Dave Pudlowski, a former St. Louis County police officer. "And they're no better off than when they walked in the door, because they don't have the psychological problems that the people teaching the classes focus on."

Tyron Henry, a 30-year-old St. Louis man on probation for marijuana possession and assault felonies, reports that he spent hundreds of dollars attending several offender-education programs. He says he got nothing out of it.

"You pay, go through the motions, get through the end of the class, and go back out doing what you were doing," complains Henry, who finally quit drugs and fighting with the help of transcendental meditation.

"If a person makes it two years without a further [probation] violation, that's somewhat of a success," explains Des Peres and Overland Municipal Judge Chuck Billings. "That's the only record we have, because no municipal court tracks anybody beyond the length of their probation."

However, just because a petty criminal doesn't re-offend in the city where the crime was committed doesn't mean he or she is not breaking the law elsewhere. And, judges might never know about it.

Why? Because there is no comprehensive method for searching a defendant's record. Most local judges use the centralized crime database maintained by the Regional Justice Information System (REJIS), but only 39 of St. Louis County's 92 municipalities report information to REJIS.

"The first time I got caught, the judge sent me to a class at the Safety Council [of Greater St. Louis]," says twenty-year-old Amanda, a repeat offender who boasts of shoplifting for three-and-a-half years. "It was a joke. There were like 30 people there, and all you do is sit around and tell people what you did. You don't learn anything or get anything out of it."

Amanda got caught a second time, but in a different municipality, and she lied about having a prior. "The judge was like, 'OK, we'll send you to a class.' And I just went along with it. They had no fuckin' idea."

"There is so much money being wasted on offender-education programs based on schlock science," grumbles one state circuit judge. "It is ridiculous."

"Every time you turn around," offers St. Louis criminal defense attorney Ed Brown, "the court reps are signing somebody up. You do the math, geez, it's got to be many, many thousands of dollars the companies are making."

Jane Browning of the International Corrections Community Association won't go so far as to call the offender-ed industry a gravy train. "It's better than nothing, I suppose."

None of the five program directors interviewed for this article ventured a guess as to how much their programs earn. They also would not provide course fees, disclose the number of attendees they "treat" in a given year or offer any specifics on the curriculum used.

"We license those," maintains Leslie Foran, executive director of the Safety Council of Greater St. Louis. Referring to class syllabi, she adds, "Those materials can't leave the classroom."

Fumes former state judge Forder: "That is ridiculous! Apparently, they can't even tell you what they're doing."

"This should not be a closed process," says Don Wolff, a former Creve Coeur municipal judge.

The secrecy doesn't surprise long-time St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David Mason.

"They're all lousy," Mason says of offender-education programs. "Did you ask them what their effectiveness rate is? They won't tell you. Ask them how many family members of participants have communicated with them to say, 'Thank you so much, my husband is no longer breaking furniture or beating me up.' They'll probably give you a little line about confidentiality issues: 'We can't disclose that kind of information.'

"Well, hold it now," Mason goes on, thumping his fist against his desk. "If what you're doing is so successful, what's the downside to letting other people know about it?"

When the Riverfront Times sought permission to observe some shoplifting and anger-management classes — on the condition that we would not reveal names or identities — Mike Smith, Alan Carney and Leslie Foran all refused the requests. And Tess Cova, president of Midwest Counseling Service, Interstate Court Service and the Liberty Program, declined to return repeated phone calls.

"I understand why maybe some of the programs are saying no. And maybe those are the ones you need to look at," says Ann Wilson of the Office of State Courts Administrator. "But these are like public programs. If the citizens of your community are just walking in and paying money to go, I don't know why you couldn't, too — especially if they're hesitant to let you in."

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Philip Heagney puts it this way: "My sense is that people who are con artists, who want to make money whatever the easiest way is, are out there in all fields.

"We can pretend they're only advertising in the TV guides or on cable stations, or involved in other kinds of well-known rip-off businesses, but sadly, it doesn't surprise me at all that they're right in the midst of the criminal-justice rehabilitation system." I thought this was going to be about money," complains Kay, the ink-cartridge thief, during the ten-minute break.

"I did another class with them," says Tom. "The only thing they care about is taking your money. Money, money, money."

"Yeah, really," chimes in Charlene as she looks up from a large white binder. She's a single mother and teacher who wrote a few bad checks over the years. "I paid $105 for this class. I don't need therapy. I need real help."

"$105? I paid $95," says Kay.

"They charge you ten bucks every time you cancel and reschedule," the veteran Tom explains.

"Well, I teach so many nights," Charlene says. "I guess it's gonna be nice to get home early, maybe even watch a little TV."

"I'm in a hole, though, and I don't know how the fuck I'm gonna get out of it," adds Kay, a recovering heroin addict. "I wish they would teach us something about financial management."

After the break, Carol tells the group to write down fifteen qualities that make each of them "unique" and promptly retreats into the lobby.

The room is silent for a few minutes, but for the tapping of pencil erasers on the table. Either most of the students are hard-pressed to come up with so many attributes, or they're unsure how much of this soul-searching will be shared.

"She gave us fifteen just to kill time," scoffs Jay, who jots down five or six qualities before fiddling with his address book and a stack of business cards.

Carol wants the students to boast a bit, to call out their attributes. "The whole point," she says, "is to show you that your behavior is criminal, but it doesn't mean you're a criminal, even if the courts treat you like one." The most important thing, she explains, is to "be intrinsically authentic to yourself."

"Be real," Tom clarifies.

For the most part, the exercise is greeted with glassy stares. Kay talks about how proud she is to be outspoken, except when it comes to her boyfriend of seven years. "He spends all the money I earn," she complains. "It pushes my buttons." When Charlene suggests she leave the man, Kay demurs, and other students trade jaded glances.

"Well, you need to love yourself," Charlene goes on. "You need to find what in yourself you think he's validating for you, because you can do that on your own."

"This class isn't about relationship breakups," Carol cuts in. "But it is about respecting ourselves, setting boundaries and maybe finding out about counseling." She mentions several local organizations where students can get therapy.

"We do 50 minutes [of counseling] for 40 bucks here," Carol adds. Apparently the class is also about advertising the company's other services.

A real hell-raiser during his youthful days in Kirkwood, Alan Carney cleaned up his heroin habit in 1984 and began a career in drug and alcohol counseling. These days, the aging hippie has turned businessman.

"We've got it all," Carney says, introducing Community Services of Missouri Inc. with a breezy, upbeat air. "If you're beating your wife, we've got batterer's intervention. If you're beating your neighbor, we've got anger-management classes. It's Christmastime now, you know, think of all those people that just have to have those little earrings they saw somewhere.

"Well, we've got financial management classes for people stealing. You get a speeding or traffic ticket, and the court will let you come to our driving school in lieu of going to jail. Kids smoking dope, we can handle that, too."

One-stop shopping?

"We try to be," Carney confirms. "We've even got private probation services that a couple of state courts contract from us."

Since becoming Community Services' clinical director in 2003, Carney has helped owner Judy Cowdry double the number of its offices, from seven to fourteen. With so many people to service, they plan to keep building.

"This is big business," Carney says. "We're talking a couple million dollars [in gross revenues] a year."

Carney credits Cowdry and her co-owner, Ken Allen, with identifying the niche, but the petty-crime treatment pioneer was actually a Maryland Heights man named Herman Wood. The former social worker and director of St. Louis County's probation and parole services opened Midwest Counseling Service Inc. in December 1974.

"We didn't have to go out and sell the programs," Wood recalls. "We were meeting a need we knew was there."

More than ten years later, Judy Cowdry and Mike Smith were both working as probation and parole officers for the Missouri Department of Corrections. "I had seventeen years in. I was at the top of my pay scale, and I was making twenty-seven thousand dollars a year," says Smith of the moment in the late 1980s when state legislators set about privatizing probation for misdemeanors.

Cowdry and Smith suddenly recognized a business opportunity that could go hand-in-hand with offender education. They left their state jobs and formed their respective companies, Community Services of Missouri and EMASS.

Today, those firms compete primarily with Midwest Counseling Service and the nonprofit Safety Council for business in St. Charles and St. Louis counties and St. Louis City. A handful of other groups specialize in one or two classes.

"We're kind of like the gas station down the street," says Smith from his sunny second-floor office in an old St. Charles house. "We're full-service."

"I frankly never expected it to grow to the level it did," he adds, citing his eight offices in Eastern Missouri and his aspirations of further expansion. "In this business, there will always be issues [for the courts] to deal with. It's a matter of, what kinds of programming can we offer?"

Carney thinks bankruptcy counseling, now required by federal law for anyone planning to file for Chapter 11, could be the field's next frontier.

Smith disagrees. "Most of the time, people won't call you until they've hit rock-bottom," he explains. "Bankruptcy is the same. OK, the courts are saying people need counseling. Well, how's the person going to pay for it?"

At 7:37 p.m., Carol has her students staring at a worksheet titled "Denial."

The paper lists ten "psychological defenses and maneuvers that people unwittingly set up to protect themselves from the realization that they are placing themselves at risk."

"Minimizing." "Rationalizing." "Intellectualizing." The students read the definitions aloud and decide which excuse applies to them.

The exercise assumes no one in the class has taken responsibility for their guilt, a supposition that became evident earlier in the evening when only a handful of people owned up to committing the same crime before.

Says Carol: "I'm not saying the rest of you are lying about how often you've done this, but in a class this size it's unusual to have these statistics."

After another break, the class moves on to a worksheet titled "Values," and Carol instructs them to write down six apiece.

"Now, let's pretend I'm an alien. I have all the powers to abuse you and hurt you. I am really crabby, because it's been a long day, and it took a long time to get here. I decide that I want you to give up one value. Cross it off," Carol commands.

By the end the students have each crossed out four values — things like friends, family, money, success. "OK, now I'm back to being me — and I promise you'll be out of here by 8:30 p.m. — why did I make you do this?" Carol asks.

"To make us see what we couldn't live without," answers Tom. "We did this in [drug] treatment."

"Where do you think I got it?" says Carol with a smile.

At 8:30, Carol passes out the students' coveted completion certificates and says, "I hope to never see you in here again under these unfortunate circumstances — and have a nice life."

As the students file out, she points to the trash can by the door and adds, "Oh, and if you don't want your materials, just throw them out here before you leave."

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