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St. Louis treatment court grads say the program is tough — but a life-changer

040722_22ndCircuitJudicialCourt_treatmentgraduation.jpg  St. Louis Circuit Court Commissioner Rochelle Woodiest congratulates Darries McDonald upon his graduation from treatment court in March 2022.
22nd Judicial Circuit Court
St. Louis Circuit Court Commissioner Rochelle Woodiest congratulates Darries McDonald upon his graduation from treatment court in March 2022.

When the St. Louis Circuit Court established its drug treatment court in 1997, the idea of treating drug offenders differently from other defendants still felt novel. Only Jackson County pioneered the concept earlier in Missouri — and its court, established by then county prosecutor Claire McCaskill, was among the first in the nation. Two more decades would pass before the state legislature approved a bill bringing drug treatment courts across the Show-Me State.

In the 25 years since its founding, St. Louis’ drug treatment court has seen many changes — from initially being perceived as a way to keep a single drug conviction from blotting an otherwise clean record, to a way of helping the city’s most at-risk residents, many of whom find themselves repeatedly in trouble with the law for behavior less about drugs than driven by their dependency. It now boasts more than 2,200 graduates.

Some credit it with changing their lives.

Listen to graduates of the treatment court, and its commissioners, on St. Louis on the Air

Jodie Thompson, 41, said he had many felonies on his record when he was referred to drug court — and spent 3½ years before graduating, rather than the usual 10 months. But he said the services and accountability offered to him through the court provided the foundation he needed to turn around his life.

“The structure and stability of drug court, in my opinion, is awesome,” he told St. Louis on the Air. “At first everybody hates it. Nobody wants to do it. It's like, ‘Man, it's too hard.’ No, it's not. It's what you make it. And at first, I didn't make it easy.”

Added Thompson: “It was not an easy walk. I had a lot of bumps in the road and hit my head 1,000 times, but they never gave up on me.” Today he boasts seven years of sobriety and owns a successful landscaping company.

Once defendants opt for treatment court, they receive access to intensive services.

 St. Louis' treatment court commissioners, Matt Melton and Rochelle Woodiest, each practiced law in the court before being appointed to run it -- but had different perspectives as a public defender and a prosecutor, respectively.
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis treatment court Commissioners Matt Melton and Rochelle Woodiest practiced law in the court before being appointed to run it — but had different perspectives as a public defender and a prosecutor, respectively.

“In the beginning, it was much more of the stick,” explained Commissioner Matt Melton. “It was a mindset of, ‘Drugs are bad. If you don't use drugs, you will be good. So go be good at it.’”

Now the focus is much more on getting people the services they need — and dangling the prospect of jail time only when truly necessary. Said Melton: “We've learned that this is really a long term behavior modification program. … We often use the word rehabilitate when it comes to the criminal justice system. And that's simply not the frank word for most of our participants. It's simply getting them habilitated.”

Melton continued: “If you've never had a job, if you've never dealt with your mental health issues, if you've never been sober since you were a teenager, it can be almost overwhelming to think about a world where those items are not there. So we work with a big carrot. And we try to use that stick incrementally, only to keep someone from getting involved in negative behavior.”

Jemecia Smith, 43, credits the court for saving her life. She grew up in a home where drugs were common, and by the time she was a teen, she was taking them herself. Several traumatic incidents, including the death of her son, left her reeling.

But the treatment court gave her the tools she needed to cope. She now has a job and has started her own hauling company on the side.

“My life today, oh, it's beautiful. It may not be as I want it to be, but it's drug free,” she said. “That's the No. 1 thing, I don't have to wake up sick and trying to figure out how I'm going to get something to put in my body to get me to function. A lot of doors have opened up.”

The commissioner who handled Smith’s case, Rochelle Woodiest, told Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air that she first got involved with treatment court as a prosecutor. It felt like a place where she could help people turn their lives around — and, now that she’s been a commissioner of the court for nine years, she can point to people like Smith as proof that it works.

She sees the success of people like Smith, and Thompson, as showing future graduates how it can be done — that there is a better life without drugs.

“They need to see five years of sobriety; they need to see seven years of sobriety. They need to see gainfully employed, small-business owners,” she said. “That's what not only the citizens of St. Louis need to see, but that's what the participants of treatment court need to see.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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