Delta Drug Court organizers visit south Mississippi counterparts

July 6, 2001

Judges of the 4th Circuit District, made up of Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties, will begin operation of the state's third district-wide drug court on Aug. 1.

A judge, prosecutor, public defender, court staff, law enforcement officers and counselors involved in the 4th Circuit Drug Court traveled to south Mississippi on July 2 to visit the state's first drug court. They observed 14th Circuit Judge Keith Starrett's weekly meeting with 35 Drug Court participants at the Pike County Courthouse in Magnolia and talked to local prosecutors, law officers and court staff about the operation of the program.

Fourth Circuit Court Judge Margaret Carey-McCray said it was important to see a drug court program in operation and hear from a district attorney and sheriff who work with the program. She said some of the south Mississippi officials noted that they had been skeptics from the outset, but now support the drug court concept of treatment in lieu of prosecution.

Carey-McCray said, "We have tried to involve more people in the community, especially law enforcement and treatment providers. It is clear they also needed the opportunity to really see a drug court in action and talk directly with people about their roles in the drug court."

"It has helped tremendously" to see another drug court in operation, said Carey-McCray, who visited Starrett's drug court before and had also visited drug courts in Florida and Arkansas.

Starrett started the state's first drug court in Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties in February 1999. Hinds County began a drug court in March 2000.

Starrett said, "The only way you can understand it is to see it in action and understand the dynamics of the interaction of the judge with the participants and understand the sanctions and accountability that are required."

Starrett tells participants that they have two options: stay in treatment or stay in jail.

Officials and court staff who visited the 14th Circuit Drug Court in Magnolia included Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks, Assistant District Attorney Joyce Childs, Greenwood Police Lt. Michael Stamps, Indianola Police Chief Carver Randle, Washington County Assistant Public Defender Carol White-Richard, Court Administrator Linda Townsend, Deputy Court Administrator Angela Howard and court law clerk Myrick Jackson.

Treatment providers who visited the drug court program included Fred Guenther, director of Denton House in Greenwood; Lee Paige, director of Alcohol and Drug Services at Delta Regional Mental Health Center; counselors Johnny McPherson and Lee Williams of the Nunan Center in Greenville; Director David Cooks and Associate Director Tim Prichard of Fairland House in Dublin; Janell Cooper, who works as a post-employment counselor with Warren-Washinton-Issaquena-Sharkey Community Action Agency Inc. (WWISCAA) and as an alcohol and drug outreach counselor; Ken Lindwall, director of the alcohol and drug unit at North Sunflower County Hospital in Ruleville; Irby Hazzard, treatment director at North Sunflower County Hospital; Al McRae and Steven Shoemaker of Solutions, an alcohol and drug program at Delta Regional Medical Center; and Director of Treatment Jessie Chambliss and Clinical Director Michael Abraham from Warren-Yazoo Treatment Center.

Carey-McCray said the drug court will use local treatment facilities when possible."One of the difficulties is the limited number of beds available in our area," Carey-McCray said.

Carey-McCray said she believes having a drug court will prevent some of the same people from committing more crimes. She said more than half of the defendants who appear before her trace their troubles to substance abuse. They are charged with drug crimes or have committed other crimes to get money to buy drugs.

"In the long run, it saves time and resources not to have these same persons coming in and out of the criminal justice system," Carey-McCray said. "We either spend time here or we spend time year after year with the same people coming through the revolving door because the underlying addiction which is leading to the criminal activity is not addressed. We all welcome the opportunity to put in time that we think is more productive in the drug court program."

The program will initially be funded by the three counties: $20,000 from Washington County and $13,000 each from Leflore and Sunflower counties. Carey-McCray said she also hopes to receive about $10,000 from the district attorney's office.

An application will be made for federal grant money in February. People who will work with the drug court have already been to federally funded training.

"We are hoping that we will be in an excellent position to receive favorable consideration for federal funding through the drug court office of the Department of Justice," Carey-McCray said. "We know that we are given some priority consideration for funding because we participated in the drug court initiative. The fact that we will have a pilot program up and running at that time we believe will be beneficial to us."

The three judges of the 4th Circuit District will share duties. Carey-McCray will hear Drug Court cases from Washington County. Circuit Judge Ashley Hines will hear Drug Court cases in Sunflower County and Circuit Judge Betty Sanders will hear Drug Court cases in Leflore County. Howard, a deputy court administrator, will serve as Drug Court coordinator until funds are obtained to hire a person for that position, Carey-McCray said.

Most districts which have drug courts in other states designate one judge to handle the cases, Carey-McCray said. But, she said, "The judges were interested in doing this, and since we have three counties, we decided to do it this way. We will share some of the Drug Court duties because we do the Drug Court in addition to our regular dockets and responsibilities."

Carey-McCray said the common thread she has seen in successful drug courts is direct involvement by the judge who heads the program.

"The key, and everybody will tell you this, is the judge really being involved and interested in the recovery process of individuals," Carey-McCray said. "The participants are amazed by the fact that a judge could care about keeping them out of jail," she said with a laugh.

"A lot of people in drug courts have withdrawn from their natural support," Carey-McCray said. " They are withdrawn from their families. Their friends have similar lifestyles. It's important to have someone take some interest in their lives, to give them a pat on the back, to have applause from their peers when they have done something good or reached a milestone in the program."

But at the same time, the Drug Court program makes demands of the participants. The 4th Circuit program will require that participants stay off alcohol and drugs and stay in treatment. Participants will pay much of the cost of treatment, which will last a year to two years. They must get and keep a job.

"If you are employed, you need to stay employed, and if you are not employed, you have to get a job and stay employed," Carey-McCray said.

Carey-McCray explained that after a person is identified as a potential candidate for drug court, the arresting agency and the district attorney's office will review the application and decide whether to allow the defendant to proceed with a treatment program in lieu of prosecution. An alcohol or drug treatment assessment is done to determine whether the person would benefit from a treatment program. Treatment programs are tailored to individuals.

For more information, contact public information officer Beverly Pettigrew Kraft at 601-354-7452.