Islands of care in a sea of woe | St. Louis Public Radio

Islands of care in a sea of woe

Jun 10, 2008

"You begin saving the world one man at a time.
All else is grandiose romanticism or politics…”

--Charles Bukowski

Two similar but unrelated events in St. Louis recently garnered national headlines. On Friday, May 30, actress Melanie Griffith and drug czar Barry McCaffrey traveled here to address the National Conference of Drug Court Administrators. Their celebrity presence was intended to promote the concept of drug courts as an alternative strategy for dealing with nonviolent narcotics offenders.

The following Sunday, June 1, thousands of African-American men marched through the streets of a crime-ridden north St. Louis neighborhood to advance “A Call to Oneness.” Organized by the Rev. F. James Clark, the effort was meant to increase awareness of the devastation wrought by violent crime in the black community and to recruit and deploy “street teams” of concerned adults to intercede with at-risk youth in high crime areas. The event concluded with an enthusiastic rally across the street from Sumner High School, the oldest all-black secondary school west of the Mississippi.

There is a convenient way to characterize the do-gooders who get involved in projects like these — they’re called people who are trying to make a difference. To paraphrase the adage, they light candles rather than curse the darkness. In each case, individuals who didn’t have to get involved, got off their collective ass and tried to do something about a serious problem. And I’m sure they acted with the very best of intentions. Unfortunately, a different adage cautions that the road to hell is often paved with those.

Drug courts have been around for some time. The one in St. Louis began operations in 1996. The following year, I wrote a column for the Post-Dispatch about the innovative approach to traditional jurisprudence. Because my old friend, Jim Dowd, was the judge in charge of the project, I enjoyed liberal access to court proceedings and deliberations.

I remember being impressed by the array of carrots and sticks available to the staff to encourage compliance from their addicted clientele. A clean urine drop on Thursday might get you free tickets for Saturday’s Cardinals’ game; a dirty one could win you an all-expense paid weekend in the city workhouse. In either case, you’re back in court the next week to discuss your progress, address your problems and again prove that you’ve managed to fend off the demons trying to devour you for another seven days.

The minimum term of supervision was one year, with many subjects taking twice that to complete the program. But if you managed to hang tough through the long, sleepless nights and the limitless opportunities to fail, you were awarded a diploma in a graduation ceremony that concluded with the judge and his entire staff giving you a standing ovation. Criminal record expunged, you walked out of the courthouse with a second lease on life and that giddy sound of applause ringing in your head. A different kind of justice from a different kind of court.

Of course, this kind of intensely personalized supervision is difficult to mass produce. Nationally, about 3 percent of drug defendants are referred to drug courts. In Missouri, 110 drug courts have a current caseload of 3,400 clients. That sounds like a lot until you realize that’s an average of just over 30 defendants per court — a typical morning docket in the assignment division of the Carnahan Courthouse downtown.

Drug courts boast a recidivism rate of 10 percent. As anybody who’s ever tried to quit smoking will attest, that’s exceptional for addiction treatment. However, the true efficacy of the program is difficult to measure because of a phenomenon researchers call selection bias. As only the most promising candidates are selected in the first place, and as those who don’t adapt well are flunked out and returned to the Criminal Justice System for routine prosecution, it’s difficult to compare the performance of these courts against their traditional counterparts. The former can pick and choose, while latter are left to deal with whomever the cops lock up.

Meanwhile, back at the community crusade against street violence, the afternoon concluded to generally favorable reviews. News reports of the event, however, failed to mention that a few hours later, two young women were gunned down in a drive-by shooting just blocks away from the rally site.

The 16-year-old died on the scene. As of this writing, her 21-year-old companion remains in critical condition and the cops have no promising leads. In a neighborhood that earlier produced thousands to protest violence, nobody saw or heard anything of value about a shooting that occurred at a busy intersection on a warm spring evening.

The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, ultimately concluded that the only thing one human could give another is care. All else comes from someone simply giving a damn about another. Well-intentioned press events notwithstanding, it appears there just isn’t enough of that to go around.