JEFFERSON CITY — When Melody Aber was 36, her three children were taken away after her Kansas City drug dealer called the Social Services Department because she stopped buying from him.
According to Aber, it was excessive drinking and smoking marijuana, crack cocaine and crystal meth that led her down a path of destruction.
Now nearing her 38th birthday and living in Independence, Aber has regained custody of her children, ages 3, 4 and 16, and she has been clean and sober for one year and nine months.
Aber said if not for the Missouri family drug court, she "would have ended up dead."
Missouri's drug court system started in 1998 and now boasts a 50 percent graduation rate with a 10 percent rate of relapse, said Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine said, "Drug courts are an excellent program" that provide more opportunities for people because of the tools they have at their disposal for recovery.
Price, who is also the chairman of the Missouri Drug Court Commission, said drug courts are "the best strategy for recovery and reduction of crime relating to drugs."
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, however, opposes the drug courts because addiction is a mental health issue, not a criminal one, association board member Rick Jones said. Jones served as co-chairman of a task force the board established to examine drug courts.
"There is a problem that we as a society have found it easy and convenient to dump our problems of the criminal justice system where it doesn't belong," Jones said.
Because of the number of cases that go before judges dealing with drug courts, "the criminal justice system comes to a stand still," he said.
*Penny Clodfelter, drug court administrator for the Jackson County Family and Juvenile Drug Court Program and a member of the Board of the Missouri Association of Drug Court Professionals, said these courts are important because they address parents who have substance abuse issues that put children at risk.
After being entered into the program, Aber had to go to weekly treatments, meetings and drug testing, which she said gave her the structure she needed to get her children back. By participating in these activities and others — such as psychiatric treatment, family therapy and parenting classes — she was able to get her family back.
In order to get this help, though, Jones said, people have to plead guilty to crimes in order to be admitted into drug courts. He said someone should not be forced to plead guilty so they can get help.
Drug courts have graduated 7,991 people from its 108 programs with 1,201 since July of last year, Clodfelter said.
Jones said these numbers are inflated. Because prosecutors are concerned with keeping up their numbers, they tend to allow those who are most likely to succeed but need it the least to participate in the program. Meanwhile, he said, people who need drug courts the most aren't getting in.
"Repeat offenders need drug court," Jones said. "They are truly addicted."
Jones said prosecutors take on those cases they are most likely to win.
"It's much easier to get a conviction of a guy with 10 prior convictions rather than a guy with one," he said.
For these problems to be solved, Jones said there needs to be standardized admissions that are fair and equal. He said there is no true statistic to show whether the courts are open to all races, genders and classes, but he has found they generally are discriminatory.
Even though admission standards do not exist now, advocates say the courts still provide a tangible benefit to the state.
By preventing future drug convictions and social service costs through rehabilitation, Clodfelter said, the program saves taxpayer dollars.
Price said including all the overhead costs in both prison and drug court, drug court costs from a fourth to a third of sending someone to prison. He said it usually costs $7,000 a year to put someone through the treatment of a drug court, while it costs anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 a year to keep someone in prison.
According to the Corrections Department Web site, there are are 5,588 prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes. There are 2,544 in drug court programs.
"With the program, people are able to be successfully monitored in the community without taking up bed space in prison," Lapine said.
Clodfelter said drug court offers not only immediate returns in terms of saving money, but there are long-term effects as well.
"Once they aren't a burden to society, they can contribute to society," she said.
One problem that these courts currently face is a budgetary one. The budget for the drug courts in fiscal year 2010 is set at $5.4 million after the system requested $10.1 million, Clodfelter said.
These funds, which come from the state and federal governments and local communities, are "not funded at a level that would benefit people," said Price.
Although she has graduated from drug court, Aber has found that the process of staying clean doesn't end when treatment does.
Aber has started an alumni support group because the lack of help can lead some to relapse, she said.
"If no support system is there after you leave, you just don't know what to do," she said.