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 Webberd@missouri.edu.