Courts - Missouri Experimenting with alternative sentencing

By Brennan David

The Columbia Daily Tribune

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- It's not a "hug a thug" program.

They don't tell you everything is going to be OK, and being honest with clients from the start about the tough road ahead is not pessimism.

Fighting substance-abuse problems is hard, said Reality House Security Director Rob Harrison, and most people can't do it alone. Structure and treatment are necessary for most offenders, he thinks, and too often substance abusers do not receive the treatment required for long-term success.

At 1900 E. Prathersville Road, Reality House serves as the foundation for the rejuvenation of many Boone County residents' lives. Through the not-for-profit organization, Harrison and staff members provide clients with the tools necessary for substance-abuse recovery and the structure to support that change and growth.

Many people know about Reality House because they or loved ones have found themselves at crossroads in life, Harrison said. And others who know it exists might think of the program as simply housing inmates, a function that spans Realty House's 40-year existence. But with the evolution of the court and correctional systems, Reality House has transformed, too.

"Yes, we house inmates when the Boone County Jail is full. That's just overflow," Harrison said. "We do so much more."

Counselors and staffers today work to provide a variety of programs to combat substance abuse. The unique set-up offers residential and outpatient treatment, educational services, housing, detention and diversion services to adult men, all while continuing to serve as a working corrections facility.

Alternative sentencing is a social experiment that has taken root in Boone County Circuit Court, which has four programs: drug, DWI, mental health and reintegration courts. All four courts work with Reality House to serve nearly 200 county residents. More participants are expected to enter the program as the newly-founded DWI Court gets under way.

Reality House contracts with the circuit court as a treatment provider for the drug and reintegration courts. Additionally, Reality House serves offenders going through the new DWI Court and has a seat on the mental health court's board.

Offenders don't have to go through these special courts and the Reality House program, but it's a way they can find help and dodge the traditional corrections system. Reality House participants show their commitment to treatment by agreeing to pay a fee for each day they're in the program after they find steady employment. Fee amounts vary by individual needs.

Reality House provides treatment by requiring participants to undergo random drug and alcohol testing to make sure they're staying sober and helps offenders find Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Additionally, Reality House helps participants find work or opportunities to further their education.

Staff at Reality House work with probation officers, too, to monitor home plans and make sure offenders have alternatives to environments where they're at risk of falling back into their old ways.

That was Joe Cole's fear when he was released from a Missouri prison in early 2009. Given the option to enter a rehabilitation center such as Reality House, he asked not to be placed in a St. Louis facility. Moving back to his old stomping grounds, he worried, would result in a continued life of gang and drug activity.

Cole, 46, said he needed a fresh start. Columbia seemed like the right city, and Reality House was the haven that provided him the structure and resources to do so. With a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear and three meals a day provided at Reality House, the lifelong criminal said he found direction in life and has followed that direction to success.

"My caseworker brought me on interviews," Cole said. "Everything was laid out. You couldn't help but to work out because they made it so easy."

Reality House made it easy to do the right thing, said Cole, who works as crew leader at International House of Pancakes on Conley Road. Cole is engaged and said he is his happiest when he thinks about his lack of desire to drink, do drugs and hide every time he hears a police siren.

It took him three months to get on his feet while participating in the reintegration program. Even though he found success, Cole said he understands it could take only one sip of alcohol to turn his life upside down.

"They consider what I do is a success story," he said. "I don't. I consider it the things I should have been doing years ago."

Christine Carpenter, who presides over Boone County's alternative sentencing courts, is grateful Reality House is flexible to meet individual needs.

"They started out as a unique alternative deal for us," she said. "They have done whatever they need to do to fit the needs of the community."

In March, Carpenter played an important role in the launch of DWI court, Boone County's fourth alternative sentencing court. The new program is for second-time DWI offenders and is less costly to the county and, in some ways, stricter for offenders.

Those guilty of driving while intoxicated more than once who go through the program are allowed to go to work or attend classes, but they're required to wear electronic ankle bracelets while they're on home detention. They also agree to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and submit to random alcohol tests through Reality House.

Participants in the specialty courts have just a 10 percent rate of committing another crime, Carpenter said. And that can translate into millions of dollars in savings to the county. Inmates in the Boone County Jail are housed at a rate of $50 a day.

"I think that money generated from this is what enables them to operate," Carpenter said. "Instead of housing prisoners, people are paying to be in work release. If we had everyone in jail at a cost, we would be spending millions more."

In his annual State of the Judiciary address to the Missouri General Assembly, Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. warned the legislature of the strain put on the judicial and correctional systems by laws passed over the past 20 years have.

He warned that the state is following a broken strategy of cramming inmates into prisons and not providing the type of drug treatment and job training that is necessary to break the cycle of crime.

"Nonviolent offenders need to learn their lesson. Most often they need to be treated for drug and alcohol addiction and given job training," he said. "Putting them in a very expensive concrete box with very expensive guards, surrounding them with hardened criminals for long periods of time, and separating them from their families, who need them and could otherwise help them, does not work. Proof is in the numbers: 41 percent are back within two years."

Alternative sentencing courts often receive the bulk of the credit for the reorganization of the correctional system that results in cost savings, but those improvements would not be possible without Reality House, said Michael Princivalli, drug court administrator.

Perhaps the best evidence that Reality House changes realities is found in those who come back to work with the program.

Today, offenders know Robert Brubeck as a substance-abuse counselor for the program. But the former drug court participant was once a client of Reality House who used to cheat his way through the system.

"I would go into a 28-day treatment program to satisfy people so I can go back to doing what I wanted to do," he said. "Drug court is not set up like that."

Today, employees such as Brubeck are the face of the program, said Michelle Thompson, Reality House administrative director.

Although not every client is successful in the program, it only takes 12 months to turn these lives around.

"Rob Harrison would say, 'Give me a year of your life. If you don't like it, you can refund your misery,'" Brubeck said.

Another client, Red Herring, 47, is a former convict who completed reintegration court and is now off parole. Herring said he has found direction in life through an anonymous 12-step program he attends and for the first time is finding success in the work force.

Upon his release in January 2006, Herring wanted to integrate as quickly as possible and found a job on his first day. After 30 days in Reality House, he transitioned into a halfway house also operated by Reality House, finding himself one step closer to success.

Today, he operates his own construction-remodeling company because the structure of the program allowed him to save money.

"When I arrived at Reality House, I was wearing state-issued underwear," he said. "Today, I own a home, two motorcycles and a truck."

Because Reality House introduced Herring to a substance-abuse program that worked for him, he has remained sober and drug-free for more than five years through his consistent participation in the program. The program is different from the other substance-abuse treatment options he'd tried because he feels comfortable in the meetings and had supportive counselors at Reality House, Herring said.

Today, he remains an active participant in treatment programs, organizes meetings for others and works as Cole's sponsor at the substance-abuse meetings they attend together.

Although Reality House has proved it can be successful, Herring warned that offenders also have to play their part.

"It's up to the individual to do what they can. Reality House cannot fix a loser," he said. "If they are not willing to put forth the effort, it's not going to happen."

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Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com

Published: Fri, Jun 4, 2010