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Judge Michael Burton interviewed a participant in his treatment court in Clayton on June 27. Participants in the program say that Judge Burton shows respect and compassion while enforcing the rules.
Judge Michael Burton interviewed a participant in his treatment court in Clayton on June 27. Participants in the program say that Judge Burton shows respect and compassion while enforcing the rules.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Treatment courts provide structured yet patient, caring approach

‘Good to see you’ Treatment courts provide structured yet patient, caring approach

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.

Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston

Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
Judge Michael Burton interviewed a participant in his treatment court in Clayton on June 27. Participants in the treatment court say Burton really takes an interest in helping them improve their lives.Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston

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.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447
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.”

Amber Cathcart hauled a bag of trash away during a service day organized by Judge Mike Burton for participants in his drug court.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
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.

Cleaning up

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

Luke Beerman cut a dead limb from a tree during a service day at an abandoned property in St. Louis organized by Judge Mike Burton, right, for participants in his drug court. The St. Louis County Adult Drug Court is a voluntary treatment program for first-time nonviolent offenders charged with a felony who have substance abuse problems. The program is billed as an effective, less costly alternative to incarceration.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
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.

Tim Dees celebrated a backgammon move against Dennis Dunbar, whom he met through treatment court. Dees said that his life is much better now after treatment. “My thinking is different. It really gets you to look at yourself,” he said.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston
“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.”

Judge Burton presided at a graduation ceremony for those who have completed their sentences at Drug, Veteran, DUI and Mental Health court in St. Louis in April.
Photo Credits: Lisa Johnston

Treatment court caseload

The St. Louis County Circuit Court will hire a full-time treatment court commissioner to handle the growing number of cases involving nonviolent defendants with substance use disorders and mental illness.

The new position is the first of its kind in St. Louis County. It was included in a bill passed by the Legislature this year and signed by Gov. Mike Parson.

The St. Louis County Circuit Court currently operates six treatment courts: Drug Treatment Court, Mental Health Treatment Court, DWI Treatment Court, Veterans Treatment Court, Family Drug Treatment Court for drug-addicted mothers and infants, and Domestic Violence Treatment Court. The new treatment court commissioner will handle a variety of types of cases, based on need.

Due to the sharp rise in the use of opioids and other factors, St. Louis County’s treatment courts had reached their operational limits. In 2018, 5,688 drug-related cases and 2,157 alcohol-related cases were filed in St. Louis County, according to state statistics. Additionally, the number of civil and criminal cases involving litigants with mental illness is growing, boosting the number of participants in the County’s Mental Health Treatment Court by 130 percent in the last year.

The popularity of treatment courts as an effective, less costly alternative to incarceration for non-violent defendants continues to grow. As of Dec. 31, 2018, there were 147 treatment court programs operating in 37 Missouri counties, serving nearly 7,340 individuals.

Research shows that treatment courts are highly successful in resolving certain types of non-violent criminal cases and in breaking the cycle of substance abuse, addiction, crime, delinquency and child maltreatment associated with drug use and mental illness. Treatment courts also have proved their value in lowering jail populations, reducing correctional costs and recidivism rates; protecting public safety and stabilizing communities; and helping non-violent defendants become healthier, more productive members of society.

Working one-on-one with judges and teams of highly trained court staff, treatment court participants must agree to take part in an intensive regimen of counseling, drug or alcohol treatment, case management, drug testing, supervision and monitoring and regular check-ins with the court. Connecting participants with community support services has been shown to improve the likelihood of participants’ success. Successful completion of treatment court programs may result in a withdrawal of a defendant’s guilty plea, the dismissal of criminal charges or shorter probation.

St. Louis County Circuit Court

(The National Association of Drug Treatment Court Professionals reports that incarceration of drug-using offenders costs between $20,000 and $50,000 per person, per year. In contrast, a drug court program costs, on average, between $1,500 and $11,000 annually for each offender.)

>> Judge Michael D. Burton

• Received a bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Notre Dame in 1982 and a law degree from Washington University School of Law in 1985

• Assistant public defender for the Special Public Defender’s Office, serving St. Louis and St. Louis County, 1985-89

• Practiced law with law firm of Margulis, Grant, Burton & Margulis, P.C., 1989-99

• Guardian ad litem for the St. Louis County Family Court from 1995-99

• Appointed associate circuit judge, 1999

• Appointed circuit judge in 2004

• St. Louis County Family Court administrative judge, and chaired the St. Louis County Domestic and Family Violence Council, 2008-12

• Currently an alternative treatment court judge in St. Louis County’s Drug, DWI and Mental Health courts

• Chairs the Missouri Supreme Court’s Commission on Battling Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence and the Criminal Justice Committee of St. Louis County Circuit Court

• Community and volunteer activities: President of Join Hands ESL, Inc., in East St. Louis, and co-founder of its Boys Club and Teen Boys Club; volunteer truancy court judge for the Ferguson-Florissant School District from 2000-08; past president and co-founder of the Alumni Association for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri and served on its board of directors from 2003-08; parish council member and chairman of the St. Vincent DePaul Parish from 1998 to 2001; mentor for the St. Louis Association for Retarded Citizens from 1991-2008

• Received the Spirit of Justice Award from the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis. Other awards include St. Louis University School of Law’s Clarence Darrow Award for Public Service.

• Adjunct professor of law at Washington University School of Law since 1997 and at Saint Louis University Law School since 1992

• Judicial instructor at the Missouri Judicial College since 2000, and an adjunct judicial instructor at the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges since 2008

• Member of Mary Queen of Peace and St. Vincent de Paul parishes.

>> Treatment court completion

Graduation from the St. Louis County Circuit Court’s treatment courts is an extensive, sometimes teary-eyed event as graduates, their friends and family, mentors and court staff trace the graduate’s transformation.

Judge Michael Burton opened a recent graduation ceremony by explaining the expanded need for treatment court for people who struggle with mental health and addiction issues. He urged them to talk to legislators about the need for treatment courts.

A keynote speaker, who now works in a substance abuse recovery program, talked about how his life became “a living hell” due to alcohol abuse. He urged the graduates to turn their gratitude into a helping hand for others. “Whatever has happened in the past, make that in the past,” he said.

Graduates spoke of being “the lucky ones” who are starting new lives. Parents said that having their children back is a great gift from God. Some spoke of Burton’s role in convincing them to take their situation seriously and then coming to their defense when needed. A teacher told of the judge’s letter of recommendation that saved his career. Others told of Divine intervention.

“It really is a miracle,” one man said. “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.”

Ann, a woman who was a previous graduate of the DWI court who didn’t want her full name used, said Burton “knew my inner workings. … He had such faith in us and wants us to succeed.”

Jail would have been easy, she said. “I would have just gotten a pack of cigarettes and gone to a bar” when released, she said.

Instead, she relies on Alcoholics Anonymous, her sponsor and her faith. “I’ve turned my life over to Him,” she said.

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