Court serves up version of ‘tough love’ to nonviolent offenders

Boone County Drug Court to be honored at ceremony today.
Friday, May 26, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:23 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

As Benji Baker stood in front of Boone County Drug Court Judge Christine Carpenter in March 2003, he tried to explain himself. He told her that he’d violated probation because he was trying to keep his father’s girlfriend, a crack cocaine user, away from his father, who was dying of cancer.

Carpenter saw that Benji had lost his focus after assuming the role of his father’s full-time caregiver and ordered him to complete 20 hours of community service. She said the work wasn’t just punishment; it would get him out of the house and away from his family situation.

Before he left the courtroom, Carpenter offered a final piece of advice: “I told him that he wouldn’t be able to help his dad if he wasn’t able to keep himself clean and sober.”

Baker credits Carpenter’s tough love with playing a major role in his current sobriety.

Since 1999, Carpenter has offered non-violent offenders facing drug and alcohol-related charges a chance to avoid jail or prison by enrolling in a yearlong rehabilitation program known as Drug Court. The court has grown from 25 to 107 participants since it was created in 1998.

The court requires participants to meet regularly with Carpenter to assess their recovery. That assessment includes frequent drug testing as well as regular meetings with a treatment counselor and probation officer, said Pete Schmersahl, Drug Court administrator for Boone and Callaway counties.

At 3 p.m. today, Carpenter will host a recognition ceremony for past and present drug court staff, and city, county and state officials at the 13th Circuit Court. The ceremony will celebrate the program’s success and designate today as Boone County Drug Court Day as part of National Drug Court month.

Missouri has the largest number of drug courts per capita in the nation — 96 out of more than 1,700 nationwide. Carpenter says the number is due in part to state Supreme Court Justice William Ray Price Jr. and State Auditor Claire McCaskill pushing Drug Court legislation through the legislature as a cost-effective alternative to putting people in jail. The legislation passed in 1999, enabling communities to form local drug courts and increasing the total number from eight to 96. Justice Price will attend today’s ceremony to be recognized for his and McCaskill’s efforts.

“We always wanted to do something to celebrate May, but we never had the time,” Carpenter said. “When we received a grant from a training center last fall, we decided to recognize the people involved in Drug Court. We wanted to pat ourselves on the back a little.”

At least judging by Drug Court graduates’ rate of recidivism, a little self congratulations may be in order. Ninety percent of those who graduate from the program — about half who start — remain arrest-free for at least two years, Schmersahl said. That’s a 10 percent failure rate within two years for Drug Court graduates.

While there was no precise comparison available, a 1994 Justice Department study of 15 states’ drug offender recidivism rates within three years was 66.7 percent, according to the department’s Web site.

Carpenter credits much of the program’s success to communication among team members, including herself; Schmersahl, who does the initial evaluation of the majority of individuals entering the program; a prosecuting attorney; Columbia police; three probation officers; five treatment providers; and a representative from a local work release program.

“The problem before Drug Court was that there was not an open forum for communication,” Schmersahl said. “It was not uncommon for a treatment counselor to not know an individual had violated probation and a probation officer to not know an individual had been skipping (Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous) meetings.”

Now, the team meets face to face every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon to discuss the progress of participants scheduled to appear before Carpenter that day. With a full recovery report in hand, Carpenter sees participants from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

“Before an individual steps before me, I know a whole lot about them,” Carpenter said. “From the initial assessment, I know about his relationship to his family and his drug background. I know whether or not that individual has been working from his probation officer. I know whether an individual is clean or dirty from urinalysis results supplied by the Drug Court treatment counselor.”

The meetings also help her get to know participants personally.

“Usually when someone comes into court, the judge communicates with lawyers rather than the defendant,” Carpenter said. “With Drug Court, I have the opportunity to talk to individuals one on one. I try to stress to them that we can get through just about anything if they are honest with me.”

She says that kind of honesty takes time to build with people who are used to avoiding punishment by lying. But Carpenter says the background supplied by the Drug Court team makes it difficult for a participant to deceive her.

“We’re dealing with folks that have most likely been using drugs longer than they haven’t,” Carpenter said. “Part of our job is to raise their social awareness skills that might have been altered because they’ve been high a lot of the time. Recovery is about a lot more than just not using.”

While Drug Court offers an alternative to sentencing, jail is still an option. “I want participants to know I’m not just making idle threats,” Carpenter said.

The judge exercised the jail option with Baker when he appeared in court for having failing to complete any of his community service.

After getting out, Baker knew Carpenter — whom he fondly refers to as the “mother of Drug Court” — was getting fed up.

“She told me that she was going to give me just enough rope for me to hang myself with,” Baker said.

This time Carpenter ordered Baker into a work-release program where he was expected to find a job in 30 days and apply to an Oxford House, a clean-living environment for male addicts.

He did.

“After that, things weren’t a problem,” Baker said. “My father died, but I was in a better position to bury him since I had a job. I started going to NA and AA meetings regularly and got into an Oxford House. It was a real wake-up call.”

He stayed clean for the duration of the program.

Baker’s experience is not atypical, Carpenter said.

“It’s amazing when you sentence someone to jail and they come back with a smile on their face,” Carpenter said.

Thursday, Carpenter pulled out Baker’s file and chuckled.

“I forgot how much he made me laugh,” Carpenter said. “But he didn’t make it easy on himself as he went through the program.”

In a final essay he wrote for Carpenter, Baker wrote that he was going to live and be happy and one day be an old man shooting the breeze with buddies at a coffee shop.

Seven months after graduating Drug Court in December of 2004, Baker wasn’t off to a good start.

After getting a DWI, he moved in with a relative who was using drugs. He stopped working, blowing the money he saved from the job he’d secured through Drug Court on marijuana and alcohol, “splurging” on meth or coke when he was able to gather the cash.

“Eventually I realized that all of my real friends were going to AA and not out using drugs,” Baker said. “It made me think about how much better my quality of life was when I was in Drug Court.”

He got to work trying to recover the life he’d had the previous year. He re-entered Oxford House, started attending AA meetings regularly and found a job he likes.

Baker is convinced he would either be in jail or out using if it weren’t for Drug Court.

“They’re honest with you and tell you what you need to do,” Baker said. “It’s a seed-planting program. When an individual wants to get clean, he has the seeds he needs to do that.”

Baker said he would like to attend today’s ceremony and say something in public about his experience, but he can’t make it.

At 2:30 p.m. he starts a new factory job where he will make more money than he ever has before.

He will celebrate two years of sobriety this August.

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