Drug court is helping offenders in the 25th Judicial Circuit overcome addiction and turn their lives around, and it’s being done at a lower cost and with more success than incarceration, officials say.
Initiated by 25th Judicial Circuit Presiding Judge Mary W. Sheffield, drug court programs have been operating in Phelps and Texas counties for the past three years. The circuit plans to start a program in Pulaski County in the spring. Each county offers an intensive program designed to help individuals with serious drug problems who are committed to recovery.
“This program is not for the casual drug experimenter,” said 25th Judicial Circuit Associate Judge D. Ronald White, drug court judge for Phelps County. “This program is for people who are serious drug abusers or addicts who need help to quit. Through treatment and intensive probation supervision, we attempt to get them clean and help them lead productive lives.”
Phelps and Texas counties allow individuals into the program who have plead guilty to a felony charge and are on probation. Both programs take more than a year to complete and participants must undergo drug rehabilitation and frequent drug testing, as well as make regular appearances before the court and attend regular meetings with a probation officer. They also are required to find employment or further their education and do community service.
Once participants have completed drug court and graduated from the program, the court continues to monitor their sobriety. According to White, nationwide statistics show that about 50 percent of drug court graduates are still clean and sober three years after finishing the program. This is a much higher success rate than individuals who are incarcerated. About 95 percent of people sent to prison will continue to use and commit a drug-related offense within the same three-year period.
“Studies have shown that this approach to treating non-violent drug offenders is most effective and most cost-efficient,” White said. “Putting people in jail does not prevent drug use, it just interrupts drug use.”
Drug Court Administrator Rhonda Ledbetter, who coordinates the programs within the 25th Circuit, said the average cost of drug court was about $10 per participant per day in 2009. In the same year, it cost the state about $45 per day for each individual housed in prison.
Even more importantly, when individuals are able to be rehabilitated, rather than locked up, they have a chance to become productive members of society and are less likely to commit another drug-related offense or theft.
“I believe in this program because I’ve seen it work,” Ledbetter said. “This is not just about punitive results. The opportunity for true recovery is there for those who really want to change. The program teaches responsibility, and once these people see what they are capable of, it boosts their self-esteem and they start getting control of their lives.”
Ledbetter adds that success in the program is hard work and takes a lot of commitment. It also takes a dedicated team from the 25th Judicial Circuit, including attorneys, judges, probation officers, law-enforcement agents and addiction specialists from Southeast Missouri Treatment Center.
“I am overwhelmed by the commitment to this program that I see from the judges and team members,” Ledbetter said. “They are dedicated to providing people with the opportunity to complete recovery and change their lives.”