Justice Matters: Missouri's treatment court divisions provide gift of renewed life

12 December 2014

Justice Matters: Missouri's treatment court divisions provide gift of renewed life

Photo of Chief Justice Mary R. RussellThe following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.

At this holiday time of year, we feel blessed by the many gifts bestowed upon us, especially those that do not come wrapped in pretty paper and tied with festive bows.

Missouri treatment court programs provide just such gifts to a great number of individuals and families. They do so by helping addicted parents, whose children have been removed, become sober and loving parents to their reunified families. They give military veterans who have served our country the opportunity to regain a life of which they can be proud, free of drug and alcohol dependence. They assist DWI offenders, who have endangered the lives of others because of their alcohol addiction, to become sober, insured and legal drivers. They help drug- or alcohol-addicted nonviolent criminal offenders, who otherwise would be headed to prison, become sober, employed and productive members of the community.

History has shown us that offenders with substance abuse problems remain addicted when they are released from prison. Although these inmates receive some treatment while incarcerated, they often return once released to the same places, people and things that encouraged their addiction in the first place, and they fail to receive quality follow-up treatment. As a result, it is very difficult for them to maintain sobriety, frequently leading them to reoffend and end up back in the prison system.

Treatment court participants range from first-time offenders to those with long histories of treatment and criminal history contacts, and from individuals living on the street to licensed professionals. They all are nonviolent offenders with a substance use disorder that has taken control of their lives.

Treatment court divisions are led by judges specially trained to understand substance use disorders and recovery and are staffed by teams of professionals, including treatment counselors. These teams operate in a non-adversarial way to provide opportunity – as well as accountability – to the participants. For participants facing charges for DWI or other nonviolent offenses, the teams also include a prosecutor, a defense attorney, law enforcement officers and probation officers. The teams meet weekly to discuss the progress of participants and recommend courses of treatment.

The participants also must attend these weekly hearings to discuss with the judge their progress. They must be willing to work to beat their addictions, by utilizing the tools the treatment court divisions provide them. They are rewarded for positive changes in life, including remaining sober, obtaining or maintaining appropriate housing, and gaining meaningful employment or pursuing educational opportunities. For participants who fail to follow the treatment court program, they face time in prison as prosecutors proceed with the charges against them.

Today, Missouri has more treatment courts per capita than any other state, with nearly 140 programs and more than 3,700 active participants. Since these courts began in Missouri more than two decades ago, more than 15,000 participants have graduated. In addition, participants have given birth to more than 675 drug-free babies, saving the state millions of dollars in lifetime costs in care for children who otherwise would have been exposed prenatally to drugs or alcohol.

At this season of miracles, the gift treatment court divisions offer is the hope and discipline needed for those seeking to overcome their addictions. The Missouri judiciary is proud to give those with addictions the tools they need to become reliable members of the workforce, reuniting families and giving those facing no other alternative a second chance at a renewed and productive life.