One minute Seattle Judge Wesley Saint Clair is handing out cookies and applause and the next a dose of verbal castor oil, or jail time, says Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large. Saint Clair is a judge in King County Drug Diversion Court. Imprisonment is the last resort in the special court, which was set up in 1994 to keep people out of jail while also reducing crime. It was a favorite project of the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, who wanted to stop the cycle of arrest, jail and release that repeats itself because the offender’s behavior never changes.
Studies have shown the effectiveness of drug courts. Each month, county prosecutors send about 100 nonviolent offenders to drug court rather than try them in a regular court. The offenders have a chance to fix their lives under court supervision (for 18 months on average) or face jail time. People sent to drug court have an average of 11 prior arrests as adults. Saint Clair says most offenders, besides abusing drugs, have mental-health problems. Many have been abused. Saint Clair grew up in a single-family household in Denver, on welfare. “I know what not having, and wanting, feels like,” he says. The program doesn’t work for everyone, but studies show a significantly lower arrest rate for those who do complete it.