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Missouri chief judge calls for drug court expansion in State of Judiciary message

Speaker of the House Todd Richardson (L) and Lt. Gov. Mike Parson (R) listen as Chief Justice Zel Fischer delivers his State of the Judiciary address on January 24, 2018.
Tim Bommel | House Communications
Speaker of the House Todd Richardson (L) and Lt. Gov. Mike Parson (R) listen as Chief Justice Zel Fischer delivers his State of the Judiciary address in Jefferson City on Wednesday.

Missouri Chief Justice Zel Fischer wants the state’s lawmakers to help him expand the reach of the state’s drug court program.

“Right now, there are 15 counties with no access to any type of treatment court,” Fischer told legislators Wednesday morning in his State of the Judiciary speech. “Individuals addicted to opioids and other substances in these areas are restrained by county lines they cannot see.”

Treatment courts offer men and women who are addicted to opioids or other drugs a chance to get clean and avoid convictions for low-level felonies, usually committed because of their addiction. Participants get access to addiction services, but are also intensely supervised, including frequent drug-testing. Individuals who successfully complete the programs have their criminal charges dropped.

More than 1,300 Missouri residents died of an overdose in 2016, Fischer said. That number includes all types of drugs, including opioids, but overdose deaths from opioids are rising steadily.

Research shows drug courts are the most cost-effective way to combat the opioid crisis, Fischer said, but cuts to state funding imposed last year caused the number of people admitted to drug courts to drop by 23 percent.

“We plan to work with you over the coming months to expand the reach of treatment courts in hopes of making this resource-saving, life-saving program available in every Missouri jurisdiction,” Fischer said, to applause from the gathered lawmakers. Fischer spoke in the House chamber of the Capitol in Jefferson City.

Gov. Eric Greitens’ proposed budget for next year restores last year’s cuts, and then increases spending on drug courts by $1.75 million. Lawmakers have not yet started reviewing the judiciary budget for next year, and can redirect that funding to other areas. But a spokesman for the governor said that additional funding was a priority for Greitens, and “we will be working with the legislature to make sure these courts get the funding they need to save lives.”

Criminal justice reform

Fischer also highlighted two task forces the Supreme Court has formed over the last year to look at Missouri’s criminal justice system. One, which received funding from the federal government and the Pew Charitable Trusts, explored ways to reduce the number of people in Missouri’s prisons.

“Through this public-private partnership, we hope to keep corrections spending in check, reinvest those savings in evidence-based strategies to reduce recidivism and, ultimately, and most importantly, to enhance public safety for all Missourians,” Fischer said. That task force, he said, has finished its work and members are expected to start making recommendations soon.

A second task force is looking more broadly at criminal justice, including moving away from holding a defendant in jail before trial simply because he or she cannot pay bail.

“It seems obvious and important that we reserve our jail space for those who pose the most danger to the community or risk of fleeing the jurisdiction, and not those who simply may be too poor to post bail,” Fischer said.

State Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, applauded Fischer’s focus on reforms, and said it should encourage his colleagues to act on the recommendations.

“We’re talking about our highest court in Missouri, the highest official in our judiciary branch,” Franks said. “It should spark some feet to the pavement when it comes to this issue because, given where he’s from, a rural area, he sees the impact of what our current system is doing and how we’re behind.”

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Correction: More than 1,300 people died from overdoses of all drugs in Missouri in 2016, not just opioids. An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported that number of deaths from opioids alone.

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