A celebration was held Thursday night for the latest graduates of one of the four treatment programs offered by the Cole County court system.
Of the nine graduates honored at McClung Park, seven were in the DWI Court, one was in the Veterans Court and one was in the Adult Drug Court.
Katie Doman, Cole County treatment court administrator, said the Adult Drug Court was the first alternative court in the county in 1999, followed by the DWI Court in 2011 and then a Veterans Court in 2014.
The Alternative Treatment Program was started by former Presiding Judge Pat Joyce, who retired from the bench at the end of 2020. More than 600 graduates have gone through these courts.
The fourth and newest alternative court was started in August 2019 by Cole County Judge Cotton Walker, who was associate circuit judge at the time. He took over the alternative courts after Joyce retired. Known as the Co-Occurring Treatment Court, Walker said this is for individuals who have substance abuse disorder diagnoses and mental health disorder diagnoses.
"These are folks who, if they don't get the proper help, will continue to be in the criminal court system," Walker said. "We want to get them the mental health help they need so, long after they graduate, they understand how they can take care of themselves. Statistically, treatment courts are the most reliable way to reduce recidivism."
For fiscal year 2021, Doman said, the Cole County Treatment Court programs received $146,167 from the state's Treatment Court Resource Fund, which is overseen by the state Treatment Court Coordinating Commission. The funds are used to cover the cost of treatment services, drug testing and other services for the participants in the program.
There are currently 26 people in the Adult Drug Court, 11 people in the Co-Occurring Court, 31 people in the DWI Court and seven people in the Veterans Court.
Shawna Davis, of Jefferson City, was a DWI Court graduate who said she was in a "bad place" when she started the program. Now, she says her life is in a better direction as well as the lives of her family.
"If you are really dedicated to the program and to your sobriety, you will take those extra steps to continue to further yourself in life," Davis said.
"The referrals for treatment courts are increasing now that more criminal court cases are able to be processed due to less restrictions related to the COVID pandemic," Doman said. "Treatment services are still a combination of in-person and virtual services. Drug testing has continued the entire time during COVID with additional safety precautions."
Doman said the programs are post plea, meaning participants are coming into the programs at the conclusion of their court case, and usually, it is a condition for them to meet their requirements while on probation.
"Assessments are so important in the alternative program so we aren't wasting money and getting the people in the right courts," she said. "We do try and cast a wide net because we want to increase the number of people so we can benefit the whole community."
Doman said they get referrals from the pre-trial assessment program, the public defender's office, private attorneys and probation officers.
"Judges even make referrals and so does the prosecutor's office," Doman said. "For the Veterans Court, we regularly get referrals from the Veterans Administration."
"I'm very grateful for the people who took the time to help me get to where I'm at today," Davis said. "I lost everything to alcohol. I'm a five-time DWI offender, but for the last year and three months, I've been sober, which is the longest I've ever been sober, and I owe it all to this program."
Doman said they try and target high-risk persons. That means they are at high risk for re-offending.
"They wouldn't be successful in a traditional probation program and need more supervision," Doman said. "A high-need person is someone that's been diagnosed with a substance disorder or mental health diagnosis. The assessments we give to defendants identify objectively their needs."
Doman does assessments as do treatment providers. If a person has been found to be a violent offender, the treatment courts do not usually handle them.
"We don't want to over-supervise them but give them just what they need to stop offending and start living a normal life," Doman said. "There's no way to just look at a piece of information and know they could be successful."
Doman added it's a team approach to monitor the success of those in the treatment courts with the judge, prosecutor's office, defense counsel and probation office all involved. The final decision always lies with the judge as long as they see the person wants to get better.
Mandi Peters is a graduate from the Veterans Court. After completing her recovery, she decided to give back and went through training to become a certified peer specialist. She now can use her personal experience with her substance use disorder and her recovery to work with others with similar issues.
"Most of my adult life I was in the throes of addiction — I even died once," Peters said. "The judge told me I either successfully complete this program or I was going to prison. I was so tired of hurting and hurting the ones I loved, and I was ready for a change."
Those in the alternative program come into court more regularly than someone on probation. Participants also have to be randomly drug tested.
"We know our folks need this because they have a disorder," Doman said. "It's just to hold them accountable. It's not done to just find them doing something wrong. We are working on changing a person's behavior and giving them space for that to happen. A lot of these folks have been hopping from place to place. We get them on a stable footing."
When a person starts the alternative program, they are asked to stay clean for 14 days and come to court once a week. The shortest time a person could be in the program is 14 months. They may have a relapse, and that could mean they stay in the program longer. Most go through a sustained 16-18 months of treatment.
"I got clean and I slowly started feeling better," Peters said. "People I loved started talking to me again and believed in me even after everything I put them through. I have my family back, a good job and am heading back to college to finish my degree in psychology.
"For anyone coming into the program, just take it one day at a time and don't be afraid to ask for help," she said.