Officials in Missouri’s 13th Judicial Circuit have long sought ways to improve efficiency, reduce jail overcrowding and offer alternatives to incarceration for certain offenders.
The circuit, which is composed of Boone and Callaway counties, has over the years embraced technology and used it to speed up cases and save money. Alternative sentencing courts can give defendants with psychiatric or substance abuse problems a chance to improve their lives and avoid a prison or jail sentence and, in some cases, a conviction that stays on their record.
Back in the early 1970s, when former Circuit Judge Frank Conley started on the bench, he began making changes. He started hearing more cases in a day and eventually hired Bob Perry, who would serve as the circuit’s administrator for decades. Perry began bond investigations in the early 1980s in an effort to reduce overcrowding and keep people out of jail who didn’t need to be there. He would also be one of the architects behind the circuit’s pretrial services, like home detention and GPS monitoring, and its first alternative sentencing court.
Conley said the changes were often modeled after similar programs elsewhere. Alternative courts began on the East Coast, he said, and jurisdictions in other states had done bond investigations before they began here. When alternative courts began with drug court in Boone County, he said it was seen as a radical idea.
“There were a lot of people who thought it wasn’t a good idea, you ought to lock the guys up and to hell with ’em,” Conley, who retired in 2002, said.
Jail overcrowding and a shift in the traditional point of view on crime drove the creation of bond investigations and alternative sentencing courts, also called specialty or treatment courts, Conley said.
The circuit has six alternative sentencing courts, four in Boone County and two in Callaway County, putting it among the top of Missouri judicial subdivisions in number of specialty courts.
Since the late 1990s, Boone County has screened people for acceptance in specialty courts, which offer a more intense form of probation and typically require people to appear in front of the commissioner once a week for updates. Persistent substance abuse offenders and nonviolent defendants who could benefit from one of the courts are recommended either at sentencing or when they’re released from prison or jail. Penalties for violating court rules can include more restrictions or time in jail or prison, but there are also incentives when participants do well. In Boone County, there are specialty courts for drugs, driving while intoxicated, mental health and veterans. Callaway County has DWI and drug courts.
Drug court was the first program of the kind in Boone County, in 1998. Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter became drug court commissioner in 1999, a post she had until her appointment as an associate circuit judge in 2001. It was one of the first drug courts in the state. Today, 92 out of Missouri’s 114 counties and one independent city have an adult drug court, according to data Carpenter provided.
Boone County’s other treatment courts — mental health, created in 2003; driving while intoxicated, 2010; and veterans, 2013 — remain rare offerings in Missouri. There are 20 DWI courts, 10 veterans’ courts and a handful of mental health courts in the state. Officials expanded treatment courts here after drug court’s success and Carpenter said they continue to be a viable way to save on jail costs and have had positive impacts on many lives.
“A lot of people figure it out and it’s a lasting change and that benefits everybody,” Carpenter said.
Several defense attorneys based in Columbia said the treatment courts offered here set the circuit apart from most other areas of the state, which either don’t have as expansive an offering. Veterans court, which works with Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital, helps veterans who have difficulty re-acclimating to civilian life by offering a setting where people who have similar experiences can help them, said Rusty Antel, a longtime defense attorney in Columbia.
“They can fall through the cracks,” Antel, a former assistant prosecutor, said. “I think the thinking is they do better in outcomes when they’re in a homogenous group.”
Attorney Jennifer Bukowksy said the alternative courts have helped many of her clients turn their lives around. While going through a specialty court, offenders have a better chance of identifying what in their lives has been preventing them from getting treatment for their problems, Bukowsky said.
“Having a team to sort out all that and help the individual along can really help save the taxpayers money down the road,” she said.
Technology began expanding in Boone County courts about 15 years ago. Now two courtrooms are equipped with cameras, microphones, projection screens and other features. Witnesses and juries are presented evidence often in digital format, saving money on production costs, and a video link with the Boone County Jail and the Missouri Department of Corrections reduces how often inmates have to be brought to court.
Judges control the technology in the ceremonial courtroom and courtroom 3 West via an array of tablets, laptops and digital controls at the bench. When a case is tried in either courtroom it takes about 20 percent less time than it otherwise would, recently retired Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler said.
Both counties in the circuit also have fully implemented electronic filing, an effort underway statewide. Oxenhandler said e-filing eliminates having to decipher a person’s poor penmanship and reduces paper use. Callaway was one of the first counties to switch over and Boone’s switched fully in 2014.
Several years ago, the Office of State Courts Administrator used the circuit to beta-test the laptops that each judge uses, which allow judges to review cases and issue orders and approve or deny search warrants remotely if necessary.
The features help when lawyers try cases, defense attorney Kevin O’Brien said, and were needed to keep up with technological changes.
“Really the proliferation of photographic evidence, digital recordings, video, was something that was happening prior to any of the technology being put in,” he said.
Both sides having the same equipment levels the playing field and keeps attorneys from having to duplicate efforts, he said.
Bukowsky said some other circuits don’t have the resources the 13th does. She’s had to bring her own equipment, including projectors, computers and tables to fight cases elsewhere.
“I’ve been to a court where I’ve had to bring my own podium to speak from,” she said. “It’s just a reminder of how lucky we are.”
All the developments over the years have allowed the court to not only save money and help offenders in the system, but also try to increase equity, Perry, the former court administrator, said. Bond investigations assess an arrestee’s risk levels and also take into account their family support system, employment and financial status in determining a recommendation for a bond amount, Perry said.
“There really are different systems for people who are poor and people who are not,” he said.
Perry is a former director of Reality House, a service similar to a halfway house that was among the first places in Missouri to be an option other than prison at sentencing when it opened in 1970. He said it’s necessary to look for ways to get people who’ve entered the criminal justice system treatment and keep them in the community when possible.
“The real test is how you do in the community,” he said of offenders. “A lot of people are excellent prisoners, but when they come out that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be great in the community.”