12 graduate from Hinds County Drug Court

October 9, 2002

Frank McGriggs said he expected his life of drug dealing and using to end at the grave or jail. He surprised himself with a happier fate.

McGriggs, who's completed two years and eight months of the Hinds County Drug Court treatment-based program, was among 12 people who graduated from the program in a ceremony Tuesday evening at the Hinds County Courthouse.

"I was just peddling drugs and trying to get along every way I could," McGriggs, 23, of Jackson, said after the ceremony. "My life was all about me. I didn't care about anybody but me."

He was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He got a break by being accepted into the Drug Court program. If he stays out of trouble, he won't have a criminal conviction.

The Hinds County Drug Court, which began enrolling participants in March 2000, has 62 non-violent offenders currently in the program, said Director Brenda Mathis. A total of 23 have graduated from the program, including the 12 on Tuesday evening.

The program requires those who are accepted to participate in treatment, stay drug-free, get a job and work toward a General Education Development (GED) degree if they have dropped out of school.

McGriggs, dressed in a navy uniform from the tire and lube shop where he works, got a job and a GED degree with the help of Improving Quality of Life, one of the programs set up to offer assistance to Drug Court participants.

McGriggs, who said he never had mentors to look up to before, credits Improving Qualify of Life Director Jim Coleman and Case Manager Edgar Brown with not allowing him to fail.

"A lot of times, I felt like I was falling and they were there to catch me. If I can do it, anybody can do it," McGriggs said of battling his drug addiction.

Improving Qualify of Life, a non-profit program funded by the state Department of Mental Health, offers a variety of services, Coleman explained. The program, now housed at the Jackson Medical Mall, prepares participants to take the GED test and assists them in finding jobs. Counseling includes Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs. The program also has life skills training, Coleman said.

Drug and alcohol treatment are provided by Harbor House of Jackson, the Alcohol Services Center, Country Oaks Recovery Center and the Warren-Yazoo Mental Health Service. The Friendship Connection, a residential facility for women, is available for participants who have completed in-patient treatment and are ready to go to work.

Harbor House Director Trost Friedler said teaching people to deal with their addiction gives them a better chance to avoid lapsing back into criminal behavior.

"A lot of these people are first time non-violent offenders. If you incarcerate them, that's not going to give them the tools to address their problems," Friedler said after the ceremony.

Hinds County Judge William Gowan, who presides over the Drug Court, told the graduation ceremony crowd of about 70 people that the choice is an easy one for people given the options of going to jail or going to treatment. Some come in thinking they can "work the system" to avoid jail time and keep doing what they had been doing. The hard part is getting people to realize that they have to make some changes in themselves.

Guest speaker Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin said, "Those of you that think you are working the system, you'll be back. You are not fooling anybody."

McMillin said, "I'm honored to have been asked to speak, but I don't want to see you again except for a social occasion."

Ten members of the Hinds County Penal Farm Second Chance Choir sang at the graduation. McMillin asked the choir how many of them were in jail because of drugs. All raised their hands.

McMillin said, "They are not bad folks. They are not evil. They were wrestling with something that was difficult to deal with."

All of the Second Chance Choir wish they had the chance the Drug Court participants are getting, McMillin said. The choir echoed a resounding, "'Amen."

Former Jackson Police officer Earl Clowers, 52, told the audience that he was an alcoholic. Clowers pleaded guilty May 18, 2001, to aggravated driving under the influence. Clowers is serving a 10-year prison sentence. Clowers, who left the police department in 1996, was involved in a Feb. 19, 2000, crash that claimed the life of Johnnie E. Craft.

"One time - that's all it takes," said Clowers, who is a member of the Second Chance Choir.

Second Chance Choir member Elton Clarke, 40, told the audience that Drug Court came along too late to help him, but he is part of the reason there is a drug court in Hinds County. His mother, Rep. Alyce Clarke, is a longtime proponent of drug courts and serves as chair of the policy-making board of the Hinds County Drug Court Diversion Program.

"My mama went through a lot. They came up with the idea of a drug court because of the things I had gone through," said Elton Clarke.

Elton Clarke worked for five years as a detention officer for the Jackson Police Department and two years as a Department of Corrections officer before he got into trouble because of drugs. The courtroom where the graduation was conducted was the same one where he was sentenced in 1995. He has served six years and nine months of an eight-year sentence for house burglary.

He landed on the wrong side of the keys because of addiction to crack cocaine, he said. "Everything I did, I didn't care because I wanted to get high," Elton Clarke said.

"God stops you for a reason," he said. He challenged graduates to think about their actions, adding, "Jail gives you a longer opportunity (to think)....It's your choice."

Rep. Clarke said her son could not benefit from Drug Court. "If I couldn't help him, I could help somebody else's child," she said after the ceremony.