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A Mother of Four, Addicted to Meth, Enters Missouri's Drug Courts

39-year-old "Karen" entered Greene County's Drug Court program after being charged with four drug-related felonies; she was

In decades past, when a drug offender was found guilty, he or she was usually either sent to prison or let go on probation. Now, a completely different approach has taken off like wildfire across the country—and Greene County is one of a handful in the nation acting as a model. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore has this first half of a two-part report on Missouri’s drug courts, and the issues surrounding them. The name of the drug offender in this story has been changed to allow her to remain anonymous.

39-year-old “Karen” says when she first felt the surge of dopamine the meth sent to her brain, she was astounded by its effects.

“I would go to work, I would come home. I could work all day, I could feed the kids, I could clean the house. I could lose weight. I could just…I don’t know—it just seemed like I could get everything done and not be tired,” she said.

She had smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine, and abused prescription pills before, but says it was the the meth that became, for her and her husband, an obsessive monster that needed feeding.

“I’ve robbed, cheated, lied. I’ve left my kids. I don’t know that there’s anything really worse than that. I’ve never hurt anyone physically.  But a thief isn’t very honorable,” she said.

“Karen” and her husband were soon too cash-strapped to pay for their meth, so they learned to cook it at home. She remembers looking in the mirror and seeing a guant, 102-pound woman whose skin was turning gray and whose teeth were beginning to erode. Her kids told her she looked like a zombie.

She was hotlined several times for neglecting her kids, but it was finally a doctor whose call did the job after her son broke an arm.

“So, they came out and asked to search the house, and noticed I had a warrant for a possession charge. [They] had found some stuff in my house that a guy I had been seeing had left there. So, it started then,” she said.

She was slapped with four felonies at once: one for drug possession, and three for forgeries. She had used a stranger’s credit cards to buy school supplies for her four children, since she had spent her spare money on her habit.

She was high when she arrived at the Greene County justice facility.  She took a urine test, and left that day without her kids. They were split up into foster homes, and the oldest, a high-schooler, stayed at the Boys and Girls Town.

That’s when “Karen” was introduced to drug courts.

“You go in front of the judge…and they explain everything to you:  what’s expected of you,  things you’ll have to do, how long it is, and how much it will cost,” she said.

She was told that if she successfully completed the intensive program, she could avoid serving time in prison, and she’d likely get her kids back.

She was in. But it would take her a year and a half, and she said she underestimated how difficult that time would be.

Drug courts themselves are a bit of a cocktail, a unique blend of the justice system, treatment, and social services all working together.  The idea is, rather than simply incarcerate people, where their addictions don’t get better, the state treats them for their drug addictions, with a chance that they will recover.

Participants have to abide by a rigorous regime with almost daily activities: individual counseling, group counseling, medical care, getting a GED, finding a job, appearing in court once a week, and random drug testing every few days.

[Sound: courtroom door closing, staff members shuffling files]

Those offenders who enter Greene County’s drug courts come here, to the courtroom of Commissioner Peggy Davis, where staff members are filing away papers after screening candidates for the program.

“When we started, it was a pretty small program. Because folks weren’t  sure whether they liked this idea of giving treatment to drug offenders, or whether we ought to do what we’ve always done, which is send folks to prison,” Davis said.

Her courtroom has gone from seeing 50 people in the program to now, more than 840, with many more on the waiting list.

The drug court model has received wide bi-partisan support in recent years, because the rate of recidivism—or the rate at which people go back to prison—is much lower among drug court graduates. According to the Missouri Association of Drug Court Professionals, the rate of recidivism among graduates is about 10 percent, as compared to around 50 percent for offenders who don’t go through the program.

One of the main reasons drug court has so much support is its price tag:  it’s far less expensive than incarceration. The state of Missouri is spending roughly $17,000 a year per prisoner in its state penitentiaries, and that doesn’t count the cost of maintaining the physical facility. With all of the overhead costs, it’s estimated that Missouri taxpayers spend $25,000 to $30,000 a year on prisoners—and the number of people in prison has increased fourfold since the 1980s.

Adding all of the treatment and overhead costs for a drug court participant, you come out between $7,000 and $8,000 per participant, per year—that's less than one third the price of incarceration.

The cost for the program is divided up between the court and the agencies involved—and participants themselves have to pay a good percentage of it, too, as well as doing community service and paying restitution.

But one criticism of drug courts is that offenders aren’t duly punished for their crimes against society. I asked Commissioner Peggy Davis how she responds to that.

“Some of the crimes, such as DWIs, do have mandatory jail time, and our offenders serve that time before they’re allowed to come into the program.   Drug court is so intense and so difficult, that a lot of offenders will beg their attorneys to do anything rather than have them do the drug court program.   In fact, I’ve had offenders come in to me and say, ‘Can you just send me to prison rather than have me do this program?’” Davis said.

Also, she said there are jail sanctions and consequences for not complying with the program rules.  But there’s also positive re-enforcement, she says—and when offenders reach a milestone of being clean for a certain period of time, they receive a certificate and applause in front of their peers…something, she says, that research has shown is more effective than many of the negative things the courts previously tried.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

Click here to listen to Part Two of this story, in which we continue one woman’s journey through Missouri’s Drug Courts, and speak to the man credited as the force behind seeing them succeed:  Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price.