Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Chief Justice Pittman calls for statewide drug court program

October 21, 2002

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman on Monday called for creation of a statewide drug court program.

Pittman, speaking to graduates of the 14th Circuit Court District Drug Court in Magnolia, said, "We've got a lot of people that need the chance to help themselves."

Pittman said the drug courts, which offer drug treatment and probation supervision, give participants a second chance to lead successful, productive lives and support themselves and their families. Taxpayers benefit by not having to pay the cost of housing them in prison.

"We've saved probably $1 million in incarceration costs because instead of jail, you get the opportunity to save yourselves," Pittman told the graduates and a standing room only crowd of more than 150 people at the Pike County Courthouse.

Pittman said state government needs to be involved in assisting people in overcoming drug and alcohol addiction. "This is a part of an effective government, to create and encourage drug courts," Pittman said.

Physician and state Rep. Jim Barnett of Brookhaven and Reps. O.K. Moore of Columbia and Clem Nettles of Jayess are co-authors of drug court legislation.

Barnett told the packed courtroom, "Look around you. Were it not for the drug court, one or two or maybe even more of you would be dead. Drugs kill....It's a matter of lives. We are saving lives."

Twenty-five people on Monday graduated into phase three of a four-part program. An additional 16 people went into phase four of the program.

Phase one is six weeks of drug treatment. Phase two includes weekly reporting to the judge and twice weekly drug testing. Phase two lasts two years for cocaine addicts and one year for other drugs. Phase three, which lasts for a year, involves monthly reporting to the judge and drug testing at least twice a month. Phase four involves no reporting or supervision for a period of one year, but participants still have charges hanging over their heads. If they complete the probationary period, in some cases, the charge can be dismissed.

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors refer nonviolent offenders with charges rooted in substance abuse to the Drug Court. The 14th District program does not accept anyone charged with dealing drugs. Participants are required to stay drug free and keep a job.

District Attorney Danny Smith said, "Those law enforcement officers out there are just as happy to see these graduates succeed as their families are."

Circuit Judge Keith Starrett started the state's first drug court in Pike, Lincoln and Walthall counties in February 1999. Other drug courts are now in operation in the Seventh Circuit Court District of Hinds County and in the Fourth Circuit Court District that includes Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties.

Circuit Judge Kathy King Jackson is working to create a drug court in George and Greene counties.

Starrett said the 14th District Drug Court started with a bare-bones budget. "We made it with a struggle and a lot of sweat equity."

The boards of supervisors of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall now collectively contribute about $25,000 a year to help run the program. That local funding is matched by about $100,000 in federal grant money.

Monday's graduates paid a total of $85,328 in fines and fees to the three counties, said Drug Court Coordinator Russanna Lindley.

Pittman said Starrett's Drug Court has become a model for others.

"We thank you for the good effort to make this program work," Pittman told Starrett.

Pittman told the graduates that their lives have intrinsic value.

Pittman said, "It's embarrassing to say 'I'm at the bottom and I've got to reach up.' But isn't it great to reach, and isn't it great to accomplish having this certificate today with the idea that my friends and my family are proud of me? They are not down here having to make bond."

Pittman said, "I know that many of you have people that need you. They need you to be gainfully employed. They need you to provide for your children."

"When you get your certificate, you look at it and say, 'This is a new beginning,' " Pittman said.

Drug Court graduate Billy Quarles, 37, of Brookhaven, told the crowd, "I'd like to thank Judge Starrett for believing in me when I didn't believe in my own self. I think this program is sent from God."

Before Quarles received his certificate, Starrett said, "Nobody has worked any harder than Billy Quarles."

Quarles said he landed in Drug Court after he was arrested on a cocaine possession charge in Brookhaven.

"I used cocaine for about 13 years, and today by the grace of God I've been clean and sober for four years," Quarles said.

Quarles now works as a house supervisor at New Haven Recovery Center in Brookhaven. New Haven is one of the treatment providers for the Drug Court. Quarles' job includes assisting recovering drug addicts.

"I walked that walk that they are walking now," Quarles said.

John Shupe II, 30, who recently moved from Brookhaven to Shreveport, La., to work on a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, said it took a trip to jail to jar him into the reality of what awaited if he didn't complete Drug Court.

Shupe said he became addicted to pain pills after having surgery to his neck in 1998. He was charged with prescription forgery. He could have been in the Dec. 17, 2001, Drug Court graduating class. But Shupe lapsed back into using painkillers. Instead of getting a certificate, he got 10 days in the Pike County Jail.

"I had everything going for me. I have a college degree," Shupe said. "But I made some choices that were very detrimental. God had that perfect plan for me. Thank you for the jail, even though I hated it."

Pittman encouraged graduates to keep trying. "I come here today to say, keep on caring, and if you trip a little bit, get up. We've all made mistakes."