Progress vs. Punishment


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From his office window in Jefferson City, Judge Cotton Walker can look across the street at First UMC, his church home. On occasion, the two institutions come together physically, like when First UMC hosted the graduation ceremony for the drug court that Judge Walker works with. But every day, the church and state work independently but toward the common cause of justice. 

Walker’s proud of First UMC’s track record of community involvement and stepping up to address the unmet needs of impoverished people in their area. His grandfather was Rev. Robert Core, a United Methodist elder who pastored in West Plains, Kennet, Butler, DeSoto and served as District Superintendent of the Jefferson City/Rolla District. 

As a circuit judge, Cotton remembers that his role is not just about justice but also public safety. Breaking cycles of addiction helps the safety of the person suffering from addiction and everyone around that person. The drug court graduation that the church hosted is part of the evolving way the government seeks to address society’s concerns. 

“Drug court was first created as they figured out the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ method was not the key to success for people with problems with substance abuse,” Walker said. 

Defendants who meet eligibility requirements plead guilty to their charges and their sentences are deferred or suspended while they participate in the drug court program. Participants who successfully complete the drug court program can have their underlying criminal offenses dismissed or expunged.

Katie Doman, another member of First UMC in Jefferson City, is the treatment court administrator for the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Cole County. She has been doing this for more than 10 years and has previously worked for the treatment court unit of the Office of State Court Administrators.

There are more people in treatment court than ever before in Cole County, but that is primarily because they have more capacity to deal with people in this manner now. She said Missouri is fortunate to have more treatment court options available than many other states. She appreciates the thoughtfulness behind treatment courts that extend back to the program’s origins, aimed at breaking cycles that prevent people from fully living their lives rather than just punishment without change. 

“It’s the right approach for people with substance abuse and mental health issues and gets us a lot farther toward helping resolve issues that individuals are having (that puts them into the justice system),” she said. 

It’s a five-phase program, beginning with stabilization and progressing through phases to help the person be well. It doesn’t demand perfection – one or two positive drug tests don’t cause someone to be kicked out of the program. But progress is required, as is participation. Many are turned out because they don’t make it to the mandatory meetings, and their cases are referred to the regular sentencing court. 

“When someone moves up a phase, we all clap for that,” Doman says. 

Of course, it’s not all steady, forward progress. For example, suppose someone is found to be lying to a judge or gets new criminal charges. In that case, the person may get a writing assignment, community service hours requirement, electronic monitoring, or a day or two in jail. 

Most people in prison will return to their community and may need assistance to do well when they reenter. Cole County is a post-plea felony treatment court, meaning the people who enter it have pled guilty to a felony and demonstrate a high risk of reoffending and a high need for intervention. 

“Treatment court places a higher demand on the offender than those who are not in treatment court,” Walker said. “In the early phases, they are in court three or four times a month.”

If someone isn’t doing well, they may get referred to an inpatient treatment facility. Or a prosecutor may request the person just be incarcerated. 

Most felons are on probation for five years. Those in treatment court are part of the program for a minimum of 14 months and are typically graduating from the program within two years. 

Walker was involved with treatment court as a municipal judge for five years, and for the last five years, he has worked with it as a circuit judge. All circuits in Missouri at least have access to a treatment court, but a few counties don’t have one in their county. 

Walker said churches had played a very important role in hosting and supporting treatment programs in their community. However, he finds it important for every community to have a program. 

“It is also important for churches just to be a welcoming place for people in recovery to go,” he said. 

“If they can find community in a church, that can make the difference. Being the steeple people recognize as a welcoming place to come in out of the cold.” 

The treatment court program tries to help people recognize their strengths and what is going well. 

Doman says across the state many churches have strong partnerships with treatment courts. Sometimes life-empowering, ongoing ministries, such as financial management courses or even a cooking class, can be very helpful to an individual trying to get their life together while overcoming problems with substance abuse or mental health. 

September is recovery month, and First UMC typically hosts activities like community basketball games that aim at reducing the stigma of being in recovery. 

Another way churches help is by living into their mission of making disciples. 

“Spirituality and religion are foundational to many recovery programs,” she said. “The church’s role in people’s lives in recovery is a huge part of their wellness. It’s a part of my wellness. It’s something that applies to all of us.”

Walker said that churches offering community meals and supporting other organizations that serve people in poverty are part of making a community a stronger, healthier place. Giving people an opportunity to serve others restores a sense of worth, pride and dignity. He’s been impressed with the leadership he’s seen at his church and the willingness to engage in this type of ministry.