What about Bob?

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

Mar 29, 2000 at 4:00 am
It's another Wednesday afternoon in Commissioner Barbara Peebles' downtown courtroom, where 25 defendants are waiting their turn to speak to the judge. One by one, they approach the bench and tell their stories. For some, it takes a few minutes -- they're meeting with counselors every week, they're not flunking urinalysis tests, they're holding jobs or going to school. They walk out of court with free movie passes and praise from Peebles. Those doing especially well get rounds of applause from the courtroom. They leave wearing broad smiles.

Others are learning the hard way. Two defendants brought directly from jail are ordered into 30-day residential treatment beginning 9 a.m. the next day, as are a couple from the street who've failed urinalysis tests that can be given several times a week in the city's drug court. Though they've broken the rules by using drugs, not showing up for court or skipping required counseling sessions, Peebles gives each of them another chance. They remain in the program.

Then there's the cabdriver. He's been in drug court for more than a year and still fails his drug tests. He's in trouble, but he doesn't know how deep. He's about to find out.

Peebles, who's been doing this for a year, stares hard and listens silently as the cabdriver mumbles his excuses: It really wasn't his fault that his last drug test showed traces of heroin; he had a cold, you see, and it must have been the cough syrup; as for those missed meetings, well, he had to go to work. "You ought to know me well enough by now to know what I'm going to say next," Peebles tells him after he's finished. "I couldn't care less about your job -- I don't think you should be a cabdriver, period. If that's the best you can think of, you should have thought of something else before you walked in here." Peebles notes that the only times the man has tested clean in the past year were during a month of residential drug treatment and a stint in the City Workhouse. Outside custody, his tests have always shown cocaine and marijuana; now it's opiates -- someone with a drug problem as serious as his doesn't need to be driving around the city late at night, especially with innocent people in the backseat. Peebles puts him back on the criminal docket and sends him to jail do-not-pass-go-style with a $2,500 cash-only bond. "I think you just want to continue doing what you're doing -- it's that simple," the judge says as the bailiff prepares the handcuffs. "You have a serious problem. I don't think you allowed drug court to work."

Born of frustration at seeing addicts cycle in and out of prison as a result of unchecked drug problems, drug courts offer nonviolent drug offenders a choice. They can take their chances with the traditional adjudication process, or they can avoid a criminal record -- and jail -- if they enroll in drug court and stay clean for at least a year. They must submit to frequent urinalysis, attend group and individual counseling sessions, and see the judge as often as once a week. All told, the tasks can consume eight hours a week for the first few months, when treatment and supervision are most intense. If everything goes well, charges will be dismissed and they'll end up taxpayers instead of inmates.

Judging by experience, the cab driver will soon be pleading guilty to cocaine-possession charges that had been suspended while he was enrolled in drug court. Some would say the program has failed here, but Carl Pickens sees silver linings. For one thing, the fact that the cab driver kept his appointment with Peebles, even though he knew he could go to jail, shows that the main message is starting to sink in, says Pickens, who supervises treatment programs for the city's drug court. "We've created him to be responsible for his behavior," Pickens explains. "He has a court date. He knows he ain't did what he's supposed to do, but he knows what he needs to do, which is to show up for his court date. Any other time he knows he's screwed up, he's not going to come to court. Our clients do that because they get to a point of not viewing the court as a punitive situation for them. Drug court is not punitive. Drug court is helpful. We take irresponsible, unpredictable people and attempt to turn them into responsible and predictable people who can continue to live in this society. That's all we're doing."

Ten miles away, at the courthouse in Clayton, the folks who run the St. Louis County drug court are trying to do the same thing. But they haven't reached nearly as many people as the city, which has more than 300 offenders enrolled in drug court after three years. Nearly a year after drug court began in the county, 25 defendants have signed up for a program designed for 100. As of the end of January, St. Louis County -- at 1 million residents the state's most populous county -- had spent just $10,000 of a $492,000 state grant given to provide drug treatment for defendants in drug court.

Several judges and lawyers, including some of the state's top jurists, blame St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. They say he doesn't really believe in drug court. They say he has engineered the county's drug court in such a way that it's destined for failure. McCulloch acknowledges he has doubts about drug court. He prides himself on a tough approach to law enforcement that includes heading the campaign for the state's 1994 truth-in-sentencing law requiring violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. McCulloch's father, a St. Louis police officer, was killed in the line of duty. His brother, cousin and uncle are also city cops, and his mother was a clerk in the department's homicide unit. Even as drug court was starting in the county, McCulloch last year worked to gut a state legislative bill aimed at diverting criminals from prison and putting them into work release, community service and drug treatment. At the time, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Prison overcrowding is not a concern of mine."

McCulloch's strict law-and-order persona is reflected in drug court, where he decides who will get in and under what conditions. He hasn't opened the door very wide. So while drug courts elsewhere save lives and money, McCulloch clings to a lock-'em-up philosophy at the expense of true rehabilitation.

McCulloch doesn't have a quick answer when asked whether he knows someone -- a friend, relative or neighbor -- with a drug problem. "You mean aside from the people I see coming into the courthouse?" he asks. "I'm sure I do. I can't think of anybody off the top of my head. I know people, certainly, who have alcohol problems."

Unlike prosecutors in Kansas City and the city of St. Louis, which boast the oldest and largest drug courts in the state, McCulloch requires defendants to plead guilty as charged before allowing them to enter drug court. If they complete the program, charges are dismissed on graduation -- until then, those who check their records will find they've pleaded guilty to felony charges. If they flunk out, they go straight to sentencing. McCulloch and the two county judges who've presided over drug court believe the threat of a swift sentence provides maximum incentive to get off drugs. "Frankly, these are people who have repeatedly, in most cases, attempted to kick their habit and have not been successful," McCulloch says. "The more incentive we can put on them to meet that goal, I think the better (off) we are. It makes no sense at all for me to not require a guilty plea." The two judges who have presided over county drug court back the prosecutor. "The reason I think it's important for them to plead prior to going to drug court, I think they need something to lose," says Judge Mark Seigel, who's been on the drug-court bench since January. "Otherwise, they don't have the incentive to succeed." Judge Maura McShane, Seigel's predecessor, says defendants in drug court need to give up something. "In our program, yes, they plead guilty," McShane says. "The way I view it, it's like putting them on probation."

The logic may sound sensible. Most of the nation's first drug courts didn't require pleas, but as the program has spread to more than 400 jurisdictions, about 70 percent of prosecutors now demand guilty pleas as a condition for admission to drug court. The trend disturbs state Auditor Claire McCaskill, who earned a national reputation by starting the state's first drug court in Kansas City nine months after becoming Jackson County prosecutor in 1993.

McCaskill says she considers McCulloch "a very dear friend" and has "incredible respect" for him as a prosecutor. "But Bob has not been -- and, I think, still is not -- a true believer in drug courts," she says. "Frequently, prosecutors are dragged kicking and screaming into drug court. This is not like the Hula Hoop. This is not going to go out of fashion. Because of the success, the funding's now available. What worries me is that people are going to be calling things drug courts that are not drug courts, which will hurt the success of the program. You're seeing people beginning drug courts who really don't believe in it. Those are the instances where you're seeing the programs that aren't performing as well. I just think Bob sees this differently. I've tried (convincing him). We just agreed to disagree. I just hope eventually he will become one of the converted."

McCulloch chuckles a bit at McCaskill's comments and admits he has reservations about drug court. "It's probably not a good characterization, although it's not completely inaccurate, either," he says. "Claire and I have had a discussion about the efficacy of drug courts for a long time. My concern is, no matter how successful it was during the participation of the individual in drug court, once it ends there's still no follow-up system there for these people. My concern is, we're going to have a lot of people falling back into the same ways they were. Unless we have a program like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), where anytime in the day or night you can find one, until we have a system like that, we're still going to have a fairly significant failure rate, I think. That's my real concern with drug courts." Never mind that the St. Louis telephone directory contains six numbers for Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, including two 24-hour toll-free help lines. And never mind that every drug-court participant is required to join a 12-step program, which he or she may continue indefinitely.

McCulloch acknowledges the county was slow to institute drug court, which began in April of last year, nearly two years after the state made funding available and two years after St. Louis started its program. He says part of the delay was a result of his insistence that none of the money be spent on new employees. "We wanted to do it right," he says. "One of the concerns I had and one of the delays, frankly, in starting a drug court in the county was, there were certain people and agencies who wanted to spend a lot of money hiring a commissioner and an assistant commissioner and various court personnel. My resistance, one reason it was delayed as long as it was, was 'Look, if we've got money, we should be spending that on treatment. We've already got plenty of judges, plenty of commissioners, plenty of prosecutors and attorneys to handle this. We don't need more bodies.' That delayed it, actually, a pretty significant period of time until they kind of came around on that."

That hardball stance -- and the fact that drug-court funding is in jeopardy because the county has spent just 2 percent of the state money for treatment -- worries Shawn Goulet, head of the county public defender's office. Goulet and others in the defense bar accuse McCulloch of killing drug court by demanding too much control over the program and refusing to listen to judges, defense attorneys and others who have tried persuading him to loosen up. "Bob may have backed himself into a situation where he just doesn't want to say yes now, no matter what," Goulet says.

Though Goulet and others say McCulloch's insistence on guilty pleas is a mistake, the prosecutor says he needs the pleas to ensure he won't have problems if defendants flunk drug court. "There is no expense of a trial," he says. "We don't run into a situation where we can no longer locate witnesses or witnesses don't have the same recollection of the event that they may have had before. We don't have a problem with not being able to locate evidence or anything at all."

Neither do prosecutors in St. Louis, because cases assigned to drug court are usually slam-dunks. Of the approximately 800 cases that have been assigned to the city's drug court, not one has ended in a trial. City prosecutors say 77 percent of the 300 defendants who have flunked drug court have pleaded guilty as charged and that there's no reason to expect anything different from pending cases. Just 12 cases against defendants who flunked have been dropped -- in at least one case because a defendant died, says Jane Geiler, drug-court prosecutor. Geiler says city prosecutors were also concerned that defendants who flunked out of drug court might somehow escape punishment if they didn't plead guilty, but those fears have evaporated. "'Get people to plead guilty, admit to the facts up front to come into drug court,'" Geiler says. "That's the prosecutor's cry -- 'We might lose in the end, have all kinds of trouble with our evidence and so forth.' The bottom line is, we're not losing, because if they flunk out of drug court, they're pleading guilty."

Prosecutors in Kansas City report similar experiences. "You stay in drug court three or four months, you get kicked out, they put you back on the criminal docket as if you never went to drug court," says Mike Rader, who once served as drug-court prosecutor and now tries cases. "We haven't had any troubles as far as a case going stale. I have not experienced any problems as far as being unable to prosecute a case effectively because of drug court."

When she was Jackson County prosecutor, McCaskill believed in getting as many defendants as possible off criminal dockets and into drug court, so she didn't require guilty pleas. Like prosecutors in St. Louis city, McCaskill says she wasn't giving up anything. Cases against drug-court defendants are easily won -- all it usually takes is the arresting officer, the lab technician who tested the drugs and a safe place to keep the evidence, she says. "A vast majority of these cases are easy to make, no matter when you take them to court," she says.

Several judges outside St. Louis County who disagree with McCulloch's plea-first policy say the way the county operates is better than nothing but that the city's drug court is preferable because more people get the best shot possible at kicking drugs. "I'd rather see them go pre-plea," says Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr., who has led efforts to promote drug courts. "Most judges prefer a pre-plea program. If the prosecutor in a county just doesn't think he can do that, post-plea at least gets people treatment instead of putting them right in jail. It's second-best." Another judge outside the county -- who's been on the bench longer than McCulloch has been a prosecutor -- says he hopes the county will eventually give defendants a chance in drug court even if they don't plead guilty. "I don't want to beat up on Bob McCulloch," says the judge, who is reluctant to go on the record because he doesn't want to say anything that might discourage a prosecutor who has been slow to embrace drug court. "I think he can still be convinced. I hope he can, because I think it's the best thing."

But McCulloch says he won't budge. He says he's not concerned with what goes on outside St. Louis County. "If it works for (Kansas City and the city of St. Louis), that's fine with me," McCulloch says. "If they're happy with it, that's great."

McCulloch says he can't say whether drug courts in the city of St. Louis or Kansas City are successful, because he's not familiar with those programs. "I haven't really taken a good look at either one," he says. "I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to them."

Drug court is tough -- at least a third of the defendants flunk out, according to national research. In addition to intensive drug treatment and court supervision, they must obtain employment, get job training or enroll in a GED program, if they don't have a high-school diploma. If they owe child support, they must pay it. Given these requirements, offenders need carrots to choose drug court. In St. Louis and Kansas City, the carrots go beyond the promise of no felony record -- they include no immediate guilty plea, because once a defendant is in drug court, a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney and drug counselors will all be keeping close tabs. "People are paying attention to what you do when you're in drug court," McCaskill says. "They're not paying attention most of the time on traditional probation. Why would you go into this program, why would any lawyer recommend that you go into this program, if it's tougher than traditional probation?"

Pat Conroy, a private defense attorney who's had about 30 clients in city drug court and none in the county, says clients in both jurisdictions often opt for probation, even though they end up with felonies on their records. "To be honest with you, some of my clientele would prefer to be on straight probation," Conroy says. "They've got less responsibilities. Either way, you're looking at jail if you screw up. I've had people fairly regularly tell me, 'Mr. Conroy, it's easier for me to get one year's probation than deal with all the crap down here in drug court.'"

Adding to the disincentive to try county drug court is McCulloch's policy of pushing for jail time instead of probation for defendants who flunk out. In the city, defendants who fail drug court are treated as if they'd never been in the program, so they often get probation. Not so in the county. "It's no different from a guy who walks in and pleads guilty and gets probation and screws up his probation and gets revoked," McCulloch says. "We're not going to put him on probation again. We're going to sentence him to jail."

Last Friday, says McCulloch, a man was sentenced to a year in jail after he was arrested on a new charge despite nearly a year in county drug court. Residential drug treatment, shock incarceration and boot camp while under drug-court supervision hadn't done any good, McCulloch says. Most likely, neither will jail, he concedes. "Perhaps it will wake him up," the prosecutor says. "But I wouldn't bet on it."

Drug-court supporters say the programs save money and have a better shot at curbing drug problems than incarceration or probation. "The benefits of drug courts are clear," Chief Justice Price told the Missouri General Assembly in a January speech. "Cost savings are substantial and the likelihood of rehabilitation is greatly increased. Drug courts are the right and the efficient thing to do." State Appeals Court Judge James Dowd, whose grandfather raided opium dens where Busch Stadium now stands, saw his share of drug cases as a circuit judge in St. Louis. He says he started the city's drug court because he grew frustrated at sentencing defendants to probation, knowing it wouldn't do any good. "You'd have your probation revocation, sure as the sun rises, six, eight months later," Dowd recalls. "It was not working more than it was working. We've taken a zero-tolerance hardball stand on drugs since my grandpa was a cop back in the '20s and '30s and '40s. They thought they were solving the problem. I don't think they did. As probation doesn't work as much as it does, I think drug courts work more than they don't work. I think we've basically flip-flopped our probability of success."

The state has reduced the county's $492,000 drug-court allocation -- money used for treatment -- by $187,000 because the money has gone unspent. More reductions in state funds could come if more defendants won't play by McCulloch's rules. Conversely, the money could be restored if more defendants sign up, says Tim Kniest, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, which administers state drug-court funds. Noting that 10 new defendants have enrolled in drug court since Jan. 1, Judge Seigel thinks the county's docket will fill up as prosecutors relax the rules for admission -- the program was initially limited to first-time offenders, but prosecutors recently began enrolling defendants with prior convictions, including people on active probation for previous felonies. The theory is that they'll be more likely to enter drug court because jail is a pretty sure threat for a felon who gets in trouble again. The changes don't go far enough for many defense attorneys who want McCulloch to stop demanding guilty pleas.

The county public defender's office has put fewer than five clients in drug court, even though Goulet praises the concept and raves about courts in the city of St. Louis and Kansas City, where most defendants are represented by public defenders. Jailing drug offenders and putting them on probation hasn't solved the drug problem, notes Goulet, so why not drop the demand for guilty pleas and get as many people as possible into drug court? "Guess what? We ain't got a lot to lose here," he says. "What we have here in St. Louis County is a prosecutor who wants to totally control a program that will end up dying in another year or two. For my clients and my attorneys' clients and for the good of the community, I need a viable program here. And I just don't have one right now. The issue is, there's resources out there that this community is bypassing right now. I do know if we do not use (the state money), we will not have it."

McCulloch isn't worried. "They can budget that money for somebody else who may want to start a drug court," McCulloch says. "There's no point in (that money) sitting here. It ought to be used."

State Rep. Quincy Troupe (D-St. Louis), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Social Services and Corrections, is threatening to yank funds for drug courts that require guilty pleas. In a recent letter to state prosecutors, he noted that such programs aren't part of a cohesive drug-control strategy. "Programs utilizing such local strategies reflect a waste of valuable state resources and time, and such programs are inappropriate for funding with scarce state resources," Troupe wrote in the Feb. 17 letter. Troupe also called on prosecutors who require guilty pleas to return all state money used for their drug courts. "Had such prosecutors not clung to such disproved plans of operation, the state would have received substantial benefits from drug court operations in these jurisdictions," he wrote.

McCulloch wasn't impressed. "I can't imagine a greater waste of valuable state resources than the time you spent on this memo," he wrote in a March 1 reply to Troupe. "Obviously, you have no understanding of how a drug court operates." McCulloch noted that the law allows prosecutors to decide who gets into drug court and under what conditions, so he won't be returning any state money. And he defended the county's drug court, despite the low number of participants.

"The system has served St. Louis County well for the past year and I will continue to require a plea of guilty from anyone who wishes to participate in drug court," McCulloch wrote. "Each drug court is designed to meet the needs of the particular community in which it is located. For some, that means allowing non-violent defendants into drug court who might otherwise go to prison. For others, such as St. Louis County, it does not."

Conroy says politics has something to do with the rein McCulloch keeps on drug court. "My perception of it is that there's more fear of a backlash in case of catastrophe -- and by 'catastrophe,' I mean someone in drug court going out and committing a murder," he says. "I think, politically, it's understandable that there's more risk, and you don't get elected by making risks on behalf of the accused. That's just the nature of the game. I think in the city, there's more of an understanding that something has to be done because the city court system is swamped. Plus, I think the city voters are going to be a lot less likely to punish the circuit attorney when they run for election, as opposed to voters in St. Louis County."

Like national experts, Conroy says drug court won't succeed unless defense attorneys and prosecutors drop their traditional adversarial roles and work together. "It's like a three-legged stool," Conroy says. "You've got the defense bar, the judiciary and the prosecutor's office. Unless the three legs are there, the stool's going to tip over; it's not going to work. And I think that's the problem in St. Louis County."

Eleven years after U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno launched the first drug court while a prosecutor in Miami, drug courts have become the darlings of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and corrections officials throughout the country. The number of defendants who've entered drug courts is approaching 150,000, and 98,000 have successfully graduated. Nationally, researchers say, about 70 percent of defendants enrolled in drug courts graduate, and fewer than 5 percent of the graduates have been rearrested. Drug court is so popular that Kansas City voters have approved a sales tax to help pay for it.

Drug courts relieve pressure on the criminal-justice system by getting defendants off criminal dockets, saving money for prosecutors, public defenders, the judiciary and the police, who can spend time in the street instead of courtroom corridors waiting to testify in drug cases. In addition to reducing the need for trials, drug courts reduce the need for prison beds -- that's one of the reasons the Department of Corrections supports drug courts. Since 1997, the agency figures, state-funded drug courts and other alternative-sentencing programs have kept 3,110 people out of prison and saved taxpayers about $13 million. In addition to financial advantages, there's a human benefit: More than 750 babies have been born drug-free to women enrolled in drug courts, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. At least 3,500 parents have regained custody of their children, and 4,500 have resumed paying child support since enrolling in drug court. The bottom line is, drug courts offer hope.

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.

"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."

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.

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."

The progress isn't as dramatic for others. Laura, a tiny, pale woman in her early 20s who shows up an hour late, keeps her arms folded tight for most of the meeting. She appears distracted. At one point, she looks ready to fall asleep. Janzen asks her what she's gotten out of drug court. The response is halting -- she's only been in drug court for a few weeks and says she's still detoxing. "I was really in a bad situation, and it's gotten me back on track a little bit," she offers. "Now, I can actually deal with things with a clear head. Before, on heroin, it was too easy to get high and not deal with things. Before, I thought there was no point in trying. Now I can try and see what becomes of things." She falls silent, as if in her own world. A few minutes later, her cell phone rings. She leaves the room to take the call and returns with tears in her eyes. She's wiping her cheeks with a tissue when Janzen makes eye contact and silently mouths the words "Need to talk?" Laura replies, "Afterward."

The meeting breaks up a few minutes early. While everyone else heads to the parking lot, Laura walks into Janzen's office and leans against a wall, alone, waiting for the counselor and whatever help she can offer.