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U.S. Attorney General Praises Mo. Federal Drug Court As National Model

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
Attorney General Eric Holder listens to Project EARN graduate Donnie Westrich on November 14, 2013.

Attorney General Eric Holder says the federal drug court established by the Eastern District of Missouri is exactly the kind of program needed to help address the country's soaring prison population.

"It's a holistic approach here," Holder said. "You have the court system, the prosecutor, the public defender's office the probation office. We just saw that this was kind of what we envisioned. It was something that we wanted to highlight and them duplicate."

Holder was a speaker at today's graduation ceremony for Project EARN, a voluntary program available for non-violent drug offenders who have completed their prison terms. EARN stands for Expanding Addicts' Recovery Network, and it's one of 50 federal drug courts across the country.

Such programs have a central place in Holder's "Smart on Crime"initiative, which he unveiled at a speech in San Francisco in August. It’s intended to reserve federal prosecution and long prison term for the most violent offenses, which means more emphasis on alternatives like Project EARN.

Like the rest of the country, Holder said, law enforcement is strapped for cash.

"And so we have to make smart decisions, smart choices about how we’re going to use those limited resources, and with these new approaches, we find that we can spend less and have better results," he said.

Donnie Westrich, one today's four graduates, had been in and out of state and federal prison for 14 years for various methamphetamine-related offenses. Project EARN, he said, was the first treatment program that stuck.

"I’ve seen them go from the substance was the program, to what are you doing to your family, to what are you doing to society, but ultimately through the federal system I’ve opened my mind to it’s all about my thoughts and not about what’s out there," Westrich said.           

In addition to praising Westrich and the other graduates, Holder used his speech to push for the reauthorization of a federal grant program that helps support Project EARN and similar efforts.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.