Judge Michael Burton grinned as Blake Shurtleff approached the front of the courtroom, one of several offenders he’d see that day.
“Blake, how are you?” Burton asked. “Good to see you.”
Noting Shurtleff’s progress, Burton proclaimed “Awesome,” “Not bad,” and “How about that!” after the questions he asked. He shook the young man’s hand. Then, to the packed courtroom, the judge announced that Shurtleff is moving up to phase three of a four-phase program. Loud applause followed.
Welcome to one of St. Louis County’s treatment courts — drug court on this occasion. In the first phase, participants go to two therapy sessions a week and see their probation officer once a week. They are tested for drugs at least twice a week and check in with the judge weekly. They do community service.
The Missouri Catholic Conference was an early supporter of treatment courts, which now operate in most counties of the state, yet have much room to grow. Missouri’s Catholic bishops point to the benefits of treatment courts for offenders, plus the cost-effective method for diverting offenders from incarceration in prison, calling them an “impressive option” for Missouri.
With more than 32,000 inmates in Missouri’s prisons, “treatment courts are saving valuable space for more serious offenders, thereby helping the state to avoid building costly new prisons,” the MCC noted. “They also lower the recidivism rate of offenders when compared to either incarceration or probation.”
Shurtleff, 23, said the treatment court “completely changed my life.”
“The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.”
He was charged with cocaine possession and started in the program in October, knowing only that if he completed it he wouldn’t have a conviction and would have better opportunities in life. Judge Burton, a parishioner at Mary Queen of Peace in Webster Groves who also is involved in parish life at St. Vincent de Paul in St. Louis, “welcomed me with open arms,” Shurtleff said. “He’s a really nice, caring individual, cheerful and motivating. We’re lucky to have him as a judge in the program.”
Because he is sober and is in the treatment court and not prison, Shurtleff maintains his job at the GM assembly plant in Wentzville, where he is a member of St. Patrick Parish. The court did more than keep him out of prison — it reshaped the way he thinks, Shurtleff said.
Zach Hess, Shurtleff’s probation officer, said the program allows him to spend more time with people and not just to supervise them but to focus on their lives.
Ruth Mayo of St. John was in the court the same day supporting her granddaughter. Mayo said Burton has a way of making the offenders believe they are the only person in the room when he speaks to them. “He shows respect and compassion, but they have rules they have to follow,” Mayo said.
On May 30, treatment court personnel and participants took part in a community service project, clearing brush at two abandoned houses in north St. Louis County. Burton slipped in with the group wearing a disguise, ala TV’s “Undercover Boss,” bringing laughter when he was identified.
Participants in the court must do community service as part of the requirements to move to the next phase, and sometimes they’re required to do extra service time for violating a rule such as missing a counseling session.
Burton said he enjoys watching the transformation of people. When people get positive reinforcement they start believing in themselves, he added.
In the first phase of the program, “they don’t have a lot of time to be idle,” Burton said. The supervision eases as they enter subsequent phases, he said, but “we make sure they can do what needs to be done without all this structure. There’s always sanctions if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”
The participants usually have lost their support system and need to rebuild it. “By the time the program ends, they’ll have all the tools they need to address their challenges and
temptations,” Burton said. “The next time something happens, instead of going to the bottle or an illegal controlled substance, they’ll go to an N.A. or A.A. meeting or call their sponsor.”
During the 15 months in the program, the participants form a core group of people who meet regularly and become important allies as they face challenges.
“Once you get an opportunity to know someone, you can’t help but to want to see them succeed,” the judge said.
Judges typically don’t get to know the individuals who come before them, he said. “That’s the beauty of these courts. We get to know who everyone is and once you get beyond scratching the surface you get answers to why people act the way they do. Many people who come to this court have been dealt horrible problems.”
They see no reason to stop risky behavior, he said, until they regain their dignity when they see others view them as incredible people. Believing in someone, he said, means not giving up on them and providing access to wrap-around services — a place to live or a job, for example.
Life is better
Tim Dees of Creve Coeur met Dennis Dunbar in DWI court. They and another participant supported each other through what they called a grueling experience with rules and expectations, reminding each other of court-ordered appointments and encouraging each other. Now graduates of the program, they still stay in touch. Dees and Dunbar play backgammon about once a week before Dunbar heads off to work as a restaurant cook. It’s one of many “sober” activities they do together. The three friends recently attended a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, reveling in the return of slugger Albert Pujols to St. Louis and sipping on water bottles instead of beer.
Dees, a retired union stagehand, was caught driving while intoxicated 11 times and went to prison twice — for 32 months one of those times. He was facing a prison term of seven years on his last charge.
“I’ve had a problem with alcohol ever since I was a kid and never really got into treatment,” Dees said, adding that he first blacked out from drinking at age 17. “In prison, they send you to treatment, but it’s a joke.”
After being in treatment court, he’s been sober two years. “I get on my knees every day and thank the Lord that I got in treatment court,” Dees said. “My thinking is different. It really gets you to look at yourself. Judge Burton is an amazing man. He truly cares. And I would feel bad if I let Judge Burton down.”
Life is so much better now, Dees said, noting that he is chairman of his Alcoholics Anonymous group. Raised Baptist, he said faith is a big part of recovery.
A second chance
Luke Beerman was among the people breaking a sweat to clean up the properties. The program “gave me a second opportunity for a life worth living,” he said. “They teach you to be responsible adults. Showing up to places on time. Being accountable. Just really having you grasp the severity of the way you were living. How the choices you were making could really affect your life.”
A former heroin addict who was arrested for possession, his physical and mental health have improved, he said. He has a relationship with his family. He is concerned about the opiate epidemic and speaks out about drug and alcohol addiction. He said he’s known at least 28 people who’ve died from heroin overdoses.
The treatment court, he said, helps because “when you’re using, you’re not thinking right. This program gets you back on your feet and gives you that push you need. Once you get going and realize what they’re doing for you, you start accepting it and it is truly life-changing. I’ll always be grateful for this program. I was surely on my way to death before the age of 25.”
Nothing is possible without God’s help, he added. “I’m here today, I woke up today because of God. I’m in this program because of God. It never ceases to amaze me that He put the right people in front of me at the right time.”
Treatment court caseload