St. Charles Drug Court becomes model for programs across the US

ST. CHARLES, MO (KPLR) - It was an emotional day in St. Charles County Court.  31 people graduated the St. Charles County Treatment Court or drug court.

It was the defendants’ chance at staying out of prison.

It turns out, the St. Charles County program works so well, people from across the U.S. come to see how it's done.

At his Class of ’87 high school graduation, Bill Esterline never dreamed he’d end up there.

The five time DWI offender and new dad was looking at up to seven years in prison and he said certain death.

But nearly 95% of the close to 1,300 graduates of the program since it started in the year 2000 have not reoffended.

Nearly two out of three people who go to prison do reoffend, said Judge Phil Ohlms.  For the cost of sending 1 person to prison, three can go through drug court, he said.

Drug court entails intense treatment, counseling, random but frequent drug or alcohol testing, and constant court supervision over the course of a year.  Most of all it flat out works; so much so here, the St. Charles County program is one of 10 mentor program in America.  Court officials from across the country come to St. Charles to learn how to improve their programs and as the graduates put it, save lives.

“When I was drunk, I was dead inside.  I was just a totally different person.  It’s like I was brought to life again,” Esterline said.

“Jail is the finishing school for criminals. So people who have criminal tendencies when you put them into jail with professional criminals, they’ll come out more professional criminals,” Judge Ohlms said.  “What we do -- the goal is you keep them in the community.  You keep them engaged in a minimum of a 1 year treatment program…you encourage employment.  They see that they have more money, they get promoted in jobs and they begin the process of self-correcting.”

“We aren’t bad people trying to get good here.  We’re just sick people trying to get well,” Esterline said.

St. Charles County spends nothing on the close to $900,000 program, a court official said.  About $500,000 comes from the State of Missouri.  The defendants and outside groups like veterans organizations contribute the rest.

Given the program’s track record, of the 31 graduates, at least 29 will never be back in court.