Treatment courts seem to be solving a problem, and might be worth expanding

David Webber ,Columbia MISSOURIAN, August 28, 2021

Last week’s column on mental health and criminal justice system generated reader interest and reactions, so I was motivated to learn more about alternative courts, especially in Boone County.

I invested about 10 hours this past week talking with knowledgeable people, reading research and reports, and observing about one hour at a public treatment court session. Here is what I learned.

Treatment courts, as the name suggests but I was slow to recognize, use individual treatments of counseling, team support, monitoring and accountability rather than incarceration for a person arrested and charged with a nonviolent crime. The best known seems to be drug courts, but there are also DWI courts, veterans courts, family courts and mental health courts.

The Boone County Jail has the capacity for about 240 inmates, given the right gender and personal needs of the jail population. Because of my homeless volunteer service, I check the Boone County Jail “detainee list” periodically and seldom see that there are fewer than 230 inmates.

Nationally, about 20% to 25% of inmates have mental health issues, and as many as 70% have had drug addictions. Practically all inmates are pre-trial, and many are represented by a public defender and might sit and wait three to six months to have their cases heard. This is costly to taxpayers and to offenders’ families and employers.

Treatment courts offer an alternative. If a prosecutor agrees, rather than sitting in jail, offenders sign an agreement that they will be honest, meet with their treatment team, submit to drug and alcohol testing and attend regular hearings. If it is a first offense, sometimes a charge is expunged from their record if they successfully complete the treatment court’s requirements.

There are several advantages to the treatment court approach. First, it is more flexible than the standard legal procedure because the prosecutor and defense can share the same goal of reducing future crime without the rigid restrictions of legal procedure. Second, rather than jail rigidity and isolation, inmates can receive support and encouragement for a trained caseworker and members of the community. Third, participants can learn life skills to help them avoid potential situations that landed them in trouble in the first place. Program costs include the administration costs and the treatment cost purchased from profit and nonprofit counseling services.

A participant’s progression through a treatment court is divided into five phases of decreasing court and caseworker appearances but increasing participant responsibility. When a participant completes one phase to the satisfaction of the treatment court officer, he/she must apply to move on to the next phase, thereby increasing the participant’s sense of accountability.

Boone County created its first Drug Court in 1998 and in 2019 received 221 referrals, admitting 119, or 54%. That same year, 41 participants completed the program and graduated. There were 58 graduates in 2014, with a five-year recidivism rate of 21%.

Boone County Mental Health Court, which started in 2003, received its initial funding from Boone County’s special law enforcement tax, Proposition L, and a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Additionally, funds come from participants’ Medicaid or private insurance and the Missouri Department of Mental Health. In 2019, there were 61 referrals with only 20 offenders, 33%, admitted. Nine participants graduated from Mental Health Court in 2019. The five-year recidivism rate was 30% for the 2014 graduates.

Veterans Court and DWI Court are smaller, with 24 veterans referred and only eight admitted. DWI Court had 27 referrals and 18 admitted. Veterans Court recidivism was 22%, and DWI recidivism was about 13% in 2019.

I observed an official Boone County Treatment Court hearing presided over by Casey Clevenger, the court’s commissioner. The comparison to ordinary Circuit Court proceedings was remarkable. The docket was about 60 cases, with the commissioner spending three to five minutes on each case. The commissioner used a conversational tone, calling each offender to the bench, greeting him/her and asking, “What are you working on for your recovery?”

The commissioner must have had a parole officer’s or caseworker’s report on her computer because she asked about missed meetings, or missing work, or “failed UAs” (urine analysis). She accepted the offenders’ explanations, especially if self-admitted.

Clevenger was very familiar with each participant, often asking direct questions about personal health, family problems or questions such as, “When was the last week you were clean all week when not incarcerated?”

The participant responded “Never.”

Clevenger responded, “That deserves an applause,” and everyone in the court room clapped. The commissioner told one participant, “You came a long way in six months.” Praise and encouragement were clearly in the Treatment Court toolbox. This is much different than a typical criminal court where dozens of defendants sit for hours only to have their cases continued by the prosecutor or their public defender for reasons the defendants often don’t even understand.

Nationally, treatment courts are almost universally praised for reducing recidivism — from about 70% to mid-20% — and lowering prison populations. Moreover, the public’s cost can be reduced from $35,000 per prisoner per year to the drug courts’ $5,000 to $8,000 per participant per year.

Boone County Treatment Court appears to have similar recidivism rates of about 20%, as found in treatment courts across the nation.

Boone County saw about 14,000 criminal cases filed. Treatment courts admitted a total of 165 cases in 2019. While each case has its own history, a first place to check is to see if Treatment Court capacity should be expanded. With the Boone County Jail operating at or near population capacity, treatment courts offer a cost-saving alternative.

Increasing treatment court capacity requires more direct funding for administration and more funding for caseworker counseling. Missouri’s Medicaid expansion might result in more treatment courts statewide. The largest benefit and savings to society are the reduction in harmful criminal behaviors that destroy individuals and families and make us all less safe.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at

Mental illness affects many families — even prominent political scientist

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, August 21, 2021

Norman Ornstein is a political science “star” whose reaction to a family tragedy will contribute to a growing awareness that America’s mental health requires more of our attention and resources.

Ornstein has been a frequent guest on TV coverage and author of several books on Congress and American politics. He has been a professional colleague (i.e. “I know him, but he probably doesn’t know me”) for more than a quarter century, but I only recently learned of his family’s 15-year experience with mental health.

In 2015, Ornstein’s elder son, Matthew, died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a tent with a propane lantern. Ornstein considers his son’s death accidental and preventable if his son had received care. Matthew had struggled with brain disease. He probably had a bipolar disorder for a decade that struck him at 24 after a promising start for a happy and productive life.

It’s estimated that more than 20% of Americans struggle with mental disease, affecting one out of three families at any one time, so Ornstein is not unusual.

Fortunately for American society, Ornstein has used his professional knowledge and contacts to bring attention to how the criminal justice system can be changed to help those citizens dealing with mental illness.

Ornstein did three acts of courage and commitment. First, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing how his efforts to use the law to find help for his son actually made his son’s welfare worse because it exposed him to negative police treatment. Ornstein learned that a person older than 18 cannot be required to seek treatment based only on family or professional concern. Like many mentally ill, Ornstein’s son was particularly afflicted with anosognosia—the inability for a person to recognize that he or she is ill.

Second, having testified dozens of times before Congressional committees about reform, government management and many public policy issues, Ornstein put his professional talents and energy to work on mental health issues working with several members of Congress developing legislation, most of which is still pending in Congress. 

Third, he and his wife, Judith Harris, established the Matthew Harris Ornstein Memorial Foundation to preserve their son’s memory and to promote mental heath reforms.

Years earlier while first dealing with his son’s mental issues, Ornstein met Judge Steven Leifman of a Miami-Dade County court in Florida who was shocked to realize the lack of mental health services. As a judge, Leifman faced committing mentally ill to prison rather than medical services. Leifman’s first case involved a young, well-educated defendant, the former head of psychiatry at a Florida hospital who had his first psychotic breakdown and just didn’t show up for work anymore. Eventually he had a minor scrape with the law for stealing a shopping cart that brought him before Judge Leifman. Leifman had expected to easily order the defendant to get mental health care. But the judge was shocked to find that even a judge could not find the proper care in our mental health system. He learned there were 10 times as many people with mental illness in Florida jails than in mental hospitals.

Judge Leifman created the innovative Eleventh Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project in 2000, which consists of programs to place people with mental illnesses who had committed low-level offenses with community-care centers rather than incarcerating them. In the diversion program, qualified offenders are offered a mental health caseworker rather than going to jail. The caseworker meets often with the offender insuring that he or she is receiving appropriate treatment, avoiding drugs and alcohol and looking for a job.

Leifman describes his judicial experience in “The Definition of Insanity” that was funded and developed by the Matthew Harris Ornstein Memorial. The documentary was broadcast by PBS in 2020 and is available on YouTube.

Many counties, including Boone County, endorsed the “Stepping Up Initiative” aimed at reducing the number of incarcerated mentally ill persons with diversion programs. Miami-Dade County is one of the best in terms of impact on reducing jail populations and jail costs. Miami-Dade expanded its police department’s Crisis Intervention Team and in six years handled 83,427 mental health calls and only made 149 arrests. Recidivism dropped from 72% to 20%, decreasing the demand for jail space and saving $12 million a year. Three of Miami-Dade’s jails have been closed. 

Ornstein and Leifman have set a high standard for citizens to use their own experiences, even while grief-stricken, to focus attention on societal needs and challenges. A state legislator once told me, “I can’t help think that you think we legislators don’t know what we should be doing. It is just like in farming; I already know how to farm better than I farm.”

We already know mental health drives societal drop-outs, domestic abuse, job loss, homelessness, substance abuse and police tragedies. We need to focus on it and commit the resources necessary to reduce it.

The rise, fall and future of the Olympics

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, August 7, 2021

The Tokyo Olympics 2020 appears not to have generated America’s interest. While disappointing from a historical-culture perspective, it gives planners and sponsors of the 2028 Olympics to be held in Los Angeles plenty of time to take note and adjust their grandiose visions.

The Summer Olympics games are a good vantage point to see how much the world has changed since 1960 when Tokyo last hosted the Games. While the official Olympic motto was amended this past July 21 to add “Communiter” (in Latin) to “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which translate as “Swifter, Higher, Stronger — Together,” I saw or heard no mention of the motto in media coverage. So much for honoring traditions.

Through the first four nights of the Games, viewership of NBCUniversal’s Olympics coverage across all its networks was down 43% to 17.5 million viewers from 30.7 million for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Primetime coverage on NBC is down nearly 50%.

According to Nielsen, the opening ceremony in Tokyo drew 16.7 million viewers on NBC on July 23, accounting for both the live morning broadcast and the replay in primetime — the smallest audience for an opening ceremony in the past 33 years.

COVID-19 distractions, the time difference, the fatigue of postponing the events for one year, and more streaming entertainment alternatives all contributed to the public’s declining interest. Additionally, maybe the Olympic games have just become too darn big for the ordinary person to follow.

Public interest might have declined, but the size and participation in the Games has increased. In Tokyo there are 11,476 athletes, 47.76% of whom are women, competing in 339 events in 33 different sports. For the first time, karate, skateboarding, wall (aka “sports”) climbing and surfing were included.

In Tokyo’s previous Olympics in 1960, there were a total of 5,151 athletes, and 13.1% were women. They were from 93 countries and competed in 20 sports, with judo and volleyball being introduced for the first time.

The two biggest changes affecting total athlete participation are probably abandoning the amateurism standard after the 1988 Olympics and the adoption of Title IX in 1972. Allowing paid athletes made the 1992 American Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird possible, while Title IX increased women’s participation in college sports, thus preparing them for further competition.

COVID-19 precluded real life spectators in Tokyo. Except for participants, their coaches and related staffers, the Olympics 2020 became exclusively a media event. For my tastes, NBC’s coverage was more entertainment and less athletic competition. For every minute of competition, we probably got two minutes of commentary and advertisements. While there must have been viewing schedules somewhere on the internet, I just checked, and if the coverage didn’t interest me, I turned it off. The only events I planned for were Mizzou graduate Karissa Schweizer’s two running finals, both early morning Central time.

The decline of interest in the Olympics, like the decline of the three major television networks over the past generation, means a loss of societal shared knowledge — a loss of collective memory. Baby boomers share a long list of memorable Summer Olympic achievements and personalities. It was the 1960 Rome Olympics that starred Muhammad Ali — then Cassius Clay — on his public journey that included lighting the Olympic Flame in 1996 in Atlanta while battling Parkinson disease. It was at the 1968 Mexico City Games that Tommie Smith and Lee Evans raised their gloved-fists to the sky in protest. Frank Shorter’s 1972 marathon success is credited with starting the running craze in America. If Bruce Jenner had not achieved the glory of being on the Wheaties box after the 1976 Montreal decathlon, we would probably not know about Caitlin Jenner today.

Mary Lou Retton’s five gold medals in 1984 gymnastics with her smiling enthusiasm captured the hearts of Americans and earned her the spot of being the first woman on the front of the Wheaties box. To date, 73 individuals achieved the status of being on the Wheaties (or later, the Raisin Bran) box, including the men’s basketball Dream Team in 1992 and the first American women winning the gold medal in soccer in Atlanta in 1996.

Simone Biles appeared with her teammates on the rival’s Kellogg Special K box in 2016 but must be the favorite to be on Wheaties box this year.

But there are also tragedies and controversies of the Summer Olympics, including the 1972 terrorist attack at the Munich airport and killing of Israeli hostages, the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the banning of Russia as a country but not Russian participants this year.

The most enduring controversy concerns the economic cost and environmental destruction related to construction of Olympic venues. Even without a year’s postponement of the 2020 Games, the Tokyo Olympics are expected to be the costliest at $20 billion, about three times Japan’s initial bid.

Without a dramatic change, we surely must be approaching a natural upper limit to the Olympic spectacle. For both the Paris 2024 and the Los Angles 2028 Games, the International Olympic Committee had to re-open bidding and increased their financial support for the new host cities. LA is dreaming of a $100 million net income by using existing sport facilities, thus avoiding costly construction of new venues.

Several recent Olympic hosts have been left with underutilized Olympic villages as a lasting albatross. With LA’s homelessness and environmental disasters, construction of new dormitories for Olympics 2028 would almost certainly generate political opposition.

A feasible future of the Olympics is to decentralize them geographically and sequentially. There is no reason 11,000 athletes competing in different venues need to converge on the same airport and temporary village for a two- to four-week stay. While the dramatic opening ceremony and a central Olympic village as unifying features of the Games are idyllic, Tokyo 2020’s lasting impact may be to make them relics of the past.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at