Prior to 2008, heroin use in the St. Louis region was relatively rare and largely controlled. Hosting a collection of cross-national highway systems, St. Louis’ reputation as the “Gateway to the West” has become a major avenue for drug trafficking, serving as a pit stop for transportation between coasts. As a result, heroin has infiltrated St. Louis’ metropolitan communities and is more prominent than ever in the streets of Madison County, Illinois.
Since 2009, Jeremy Jewell, PhD, professor of psychology in the SIUE School of Education, Health and
Human Behavior, has taken the initiative to tirelessly combat this growing problem. Collaborating with the Madison County Probation and Court Services Department and Chestnut Health Systems, Jewell and his colleagues have vigorously sought solutions for this rapidly growing epidemic. There were 44 confirmed heroin-related deaths in Madison County in 2015, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2014.
Founded in the 1980s, drug court programs have rapidly grown to become an effective imprisonment alternative for convicted drug abusers. In 2014, there were 2,619 programs throughout the U.S., according to the Office of Justice Programs Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project.
The Madison County Superior Court for Drug Treatment (MCSCDT) was the first drug court program in Illinois and has provided aid to recovering substance abuse victims in the area since 2005. Generally a 14-month program, MCSCDT participants undergo a rigorous, court-mandated treatment program. The program requires frequent court meetings and drug testing, as well as four Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings each week and one probation officer meeting each week.
Through the Court, Jewell and his colleagues have facilitated diversified treatment opportunities for Madison County drug abuse victims under a previous federal grant, Project Safe Recovery, and the team’s current federally funded research initiative, Project New Direction.
A 2009 expansion project of the MCSCDT, Project Safe Recovery provided treatment for an underserved niche: female drug abuse victims. By creating a place of worship and purchasing a bus to provide transportation for participants, Jewell and his team were able to construct a treatment option customized toward the needs of women. Project Safe Recovery’s data were conclusive in finding that completion of drug court treatment indeed reduces a participant’s risk of recidivism.
“I was at a drug court graduation two years ago and a graduate, who was a young mother, stepped to the podium with her daughter in her arms,” Jewell explained. “She thanked those involved for giving her a second chance, then the child leaned to the microphone and said, ‘Thank you for giving me my mommy back!’
“That moment was incredibly moving for me. The woman had not had custody of her child for several years because of her drug use, so the child literally got her mother back – and it saved the young woman from the grave.”
Jewell is currently evaluating Project New Direction’s data. Project New Direction services both male and female drug abuse victims and employs the use of medication-assisted treatment in the care of substance abuse victims. Reassembling the same project team, Jewell and his colleagues purchased expensive medication options to wean participants away from the cravings of opioid use while continuing to provide long-term substance abuse treatment.
With the help of two graduate student assistants, Allison Benware and Jenna Belgard, as well as a former graduate assistant, Meaghan Malherek, Jewell has gathered quantitative information which further defends his ongoing research of the long-term effectiveness of drug courts. Jewell concludes that within one year of discharge, MCSCDT graduates were found to reoffend only 21.5 percent of the time, in comparison to 65.8 percent of participants who withdrew from services and 50.1 percent of users who declined services and opted to serve jail time.
After tracking participants for more than three and a half years, he found that only 47.3 percent
of MCSCDT graduates have reoffended to date, in contrast to 77.1 percent of participants who withdrew from services and 75 percent of users who declined services and served jail time. Jewell’s research also shows statistical evidence that MCSCDT graduates have a lower number of other criminal incidents and the classes of such crimes have been lower than violations by members of the control groups.
“The drug does not know a socioeconomic group, and it crosses all barriers,” said Nancy Cooper, chief probation officer of the Alternative Court Division for the MCSCDT. “It doesn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, educated or uneducated – they are becoming addicted to this drug. It is just so prevalent in Madison County and the surrounding areas, and the damage being done is horrible.
“The data Dr. Jewell collects and interprets for us is very important because it reveals areas for improvement, solutions for helping our drug court clients be more successful in sobriety, and reveals concerns of overdosing or mental illness.”
The MCSCDT and the outstanding work of Jewell and his colleagues have gained international recognition in the field of drug court treatment and effectiveness. Jewell recently had a paper accepted by the International Journal of Mental Health Addiction titled “The Long Term Effectiveness of Drug Treatment Court on Reducing Recidivism and Predictors of Voluntary Withdrawal.”
“Through the actions of our drug court and the support of Dr. Jewell, we are enhancing our community and making it safer, aiding in family restoration, improving the social welfare of our clients, and helping to reunite families who are falling victim to this drug,” Cooper said.
“Providing treatment for drug use is incredibly important,” Jewell said. “I’m so glad that the American justice system has moved from a ‘catch-and-punish’ to a ‘catch-and-treat’ model. There will always be people who refuse treatment, but I hope this success continues to build nationwide. I appreciate the help I’ve received from others in building awareness, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.”