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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. This week, we've been taking a look at some of those who are living behind bars in America. We began our series at an Ohio reformatory for female inmates, many of whom are mothers.

Yesterday, we went inside the Twin Towers jail here in Los Angeles, which functions as a de-facto mental-health hospital for from 1,500 to 2,000 mentally ill inmates.

California leads the nation in spending on corrections. Coming in as number two is Texas, where we visit today. Texas spends more than $3 billion a year on corrections, and like many states, is looking for ways to decrease its inmate population and save tax dollars.

More and more, Texas is turning to alternative sentencing methods like drug courts to keep people out of prison from the start. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports on a program called DIVERT Court.

WADE GOODWYN: It's Tuesday evening at 6:00, and DIVERT Court is about to begin.

Mr. JUSTIN ALEXANDER (Court Officer, Dallas, Texas): All right, we're going to call roll. Listen up for your name. Arthur?

GOODWYN: That's DIVERT Court, as in even though we arrested your sorry self with a gram of cocaine in your possession when you got pulled over, we are going to try to divert you from going to prison.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Anna? Where you at, Anna?

GOODWYN: Where are you at, Anna? Court Officer Justin Alexander calls out to the dozens of perpetrators like he knows them intimately, and this is what sets DIVERT Court so radically apart from the rest of the Texas criminal justice system, because there is a relationship here between the criminal and the court officials, the judge, the case managers, the drug and alcohol therapists that's grounded in the repetition of seeing each other every week, even several times a week.

The familiarity embodied in the roll call is actually a subtle clue to DIVERT Court's success, and after roll call, it's time for Judge John Creuzot. He enters the courtroom quickly, stage right, robes flowing in his wake, completely in command of his realm.

Judge JOHN CREUZOT (DIVERT Court, Dallas, Texas): Hello, Mr. Dwight. How are you? Miss Sharon, I'm glad I'm here when you're here.

Ms. SHARON: I am, too, Judge.

Judge CREUZOT: All right, we're going to have a court tonight.

GOODWYN: DIVERT Court looks like the waiting room at the DMV. Every demographic is amply represented.

Judge CREUZOT: See that guy right there? His name is Wade Goodwyn with National Public Radio. How many of you guys listen to National Public Radio? Raise your hand so he can feel like he's doing a good job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWYN: Ha ha ha, but if the judge needs to keep his day job, you wouldn't know it by this group, who laugh right along with Creuzot. It's true they're a captive audience, literally, but it's more than that. When the convicted men and women approach the bench, the look in their eyes is one of trust.

Judge CREUZOT: Natasha, I'm glad you're here today. Come on up so I can talk to you, find out what you've been up to. Hike those pants up. You're not sagging, are you?

Ms. NATASHA: No, not today.

Judge CREUZOT: All right. So how's your week been?

Ms. NATASHA: It's been very good.

Judge CREUZOT: Recovery's going well?

Ms. NATASHA: Yes, sir.

Judge CREUZOT: Any cravings?

Ms. NATASHA: No.

Judge CREUZOT: None?

Ms. NATASHA: No, sir.

Judge CREUZOT: Well great, because you're going to Phase Three. Congratulations.

(Soundbite of applause)

GOODWYN: Phase Three is the final quest in Creuzot's DIVER Court, and it's taken Natasha Stephens a year to get here. She beams as she walks back to her seat, and Creuzot reminds her how far she's come.

Judge CREUZOT: Are you proud of yourself?

Ms. NATASHA: Yes, sir.

Judge CREUZOT: You've come a long way, haven't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge CREUZOT: You were pretty damn mean when you first got here, girl.

GOODWYN: Natasha Stephens says she began drinking when she was eight years old. By the time she was busted for possessing a gram of cocaine at age 21, she'd been addicted to coke and alcohol for years.

Ms. NATASHA: All through my teens, high school, college. I actually dropped out of college because I had started using so bad that I couldn't even go to class.

GOODWYN: Stephens was facing a felony conviction and up to two years in prison, but because it was her first arrest, and the amount she was carrying was relatively small, she was a candidate for Creuzot's DIVERT Court, but Natasha Stephens quickly discovered DIVERT Court was not the easy way out of the criminal justice system she'd assumed.

Instead of doing nothing in jail, she had to meet with her case manager twice a week, go to Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because she had both addictions, and she had intensive outpatient treatment sessions to boot.

Ms. NATASHA: We got Friday and Saturday as a day off, but even those aren't guaranteed. We have a number we have to call, and if it says you've got to come pee in a cup, you've got to come pee in a cup.

GOODWYN: In DIVERT Court, you get drug-tested like you're riding the Tour de France, and if you know anything about alcohol and cocaine addiction, you probably won't be surprised to hear that one weekend, Stephens fell off the wagon then failed a subsequent drug test. And this is where DIVERT Court's philosophy manifests just how different it is, because instead of kicking Stephens out of the program and sending her off to prison, Judge Creuzot sent her to 45 days of intensive inpatient drug treatment, and Stephens says that changed her life.

Ms. NATASHA: In treatment, I'm seeing people who come off the street, and I had never gotten a chance to really get to that level where they say you live on an animalistic level. I was not homeless by any means, but I put myself in the same situations that they put themselves in to get themselves where they were at.

GOODWYN: Understanding just how close she was to a life of oblivion, Stephens dropped her know-it-all attitude and got serious about recovery. She's been sober for more than a year, and Natasha Stephens has the drug tests to prove it.

Judge John Creuzot says what's different about DIVERT Court is the intense judicial oversight.

Judge CREUZOT: A person gets arrested, and they're going through the regular court system. It may be weeks or months before they show up to court, and they're placed on probation, and it may be weeks or months before there's an assessment done. If they're an addict or they're an alcoholic, that arrest usually does not have any impact on their continued behavior.

GOODWYN: Creuzot says there are now more than 80 so-called problem-solving courts like DIVERT Court around Texas. Two studies by Southern Methodist University show that DIVERT Court cuts the recidivism rate by 68 percent over the regular Texas criminal justice courts, and for every dollar spent on the court, $9 are saved in future criminal justice costs.

Judge CREUZOT: A person who relapses on drugs needs further treatment. The least effective thing you can do is put them in jail for jail's sake. The research is clear on that, and that's the other thing that's different about this. What we do, our responses are research-driven.

GOODWYN: Creuzot says the next step is to expand these courts to include perpetrators of property crimes and to raise the current possession limits. For example, if you're busted with two grams of cocaine, that's too much to qualify for DIVERT Court, and Creuzot believes that's too low, and only first-time offenders qualify. Creuzot would like to see that changed to be more inclusive.

The courts have been so successful that even the tough-on-crime, Republican-dominated Texas Legislature approves. Jerry Madden is a Republican house representative from Plano, and he chairs the corrections committee

State Representative JERRY MADDEN (Republican, Texas): We have 157,000 people in the prisons of Texas right now. We have 465,000 or more that are on probation in the state of Texas. We have another almost 78,000 people that are on parole right now. So that means in the system, I've got over 675,000, almost 700,000 citizens of Texas. That's a lot.

GOODWYN: Madden says the expanding prison population is a financial red stain spreading across the state's books like the Andromeda Strain. Each new maximum security prison costs Texas taxpayers $300 million to build and $40 million a year to operate.

The state estimates that unless changes are made, Texas will need 17,000 more prison beds in just a few years, but releasing prisoners on parole is politically untenable. It's off the table. Madden says instead of worrying about the outflow from prison, he wants to choke off the inflow with courts like DIVERT Court and avoid the $2-billion invoice.

State Rep. MADDEN: That's a huge cost to my taxpayers.

GOODWYN: In a state full of conservative politicians who describe themselves as fiscally responsible, the prison system spends money at a rate that would make the defense department blush. Republicans and Democrats alike are learning that even in tough-on-crime Texas, there's a limit. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

MONTAGNE: You can find more about the DIVERT Court system in Texas and return to our visits to the Ohio Reformatory for Women and L.A.'s Twin Towers County Jail at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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