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

Judicial Conference hears drug court judges and recovering addicts

October 24, 2002

Helen McDonald of Summit, a recovering OxyContin addict, said her children recently told her that they hope she stays in Drug Court forever because it has kept her off drugs.

McDonald, 35, a mother of three, speaking at the Mississippi Trial and Appellate Judges Conference Thursday in Jackson, said she had been on and off drugs repeatedly, finally working up to a 30-pill a day habit. She was prescribed the painkiller OxyContin after an accident three years ago, and she was hooked. But the treatment and supervision regimen offered by the 14th Circuit District Drug Court has kept her drug-free for 18 months.

McDonald said, "It's just given me a whole new life. All my life, I relied on somebody else. Today I rely on me and God. Today I take pride in myself."

Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb, who created the state's first drug court in the 14th District of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties in 1999, on Thursday urged other judges to create drug court programs. There are now three circuit court programs in operation. The other two are in the Seventh Circuit Court District of Hinds County and in the Fourth Circuit Court District that includes Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties.

"Judges, if we don't do it, it's not going to get done. Nobody else in our society has the opportunity and the ability to do what you can do as a drug court judge," Starrett told an audience of about 50 circuit, chancery and county court judges.

"Drug Court is not 'hug a thug.' It is not soft on crime. It is not something your community will not approve of," Starrett said.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman told the judges at a noon luncheon that legislation to create a statewide system of drug courts will be one of his three legislative priorities in 2003. Pittman said testimonials he heard from recovering addicts, their families and employers at a Drug Court graduation in Magnolia on Monday helped convince him that drug courts save lives.

Missouri Circuit Judge David Dolan of Sikeston said some judges are hesitant to take on the roles of probation supervisors and social services providers. Dolan answers that reluctance this way: "We took and oath to support the administration of justice. It's when the drug epidemic is infringing upon the court system and the administration of justice that it's the judge's job to step outside that traditional role."

Dolan founded Missouri's first juvenile drug court in 1995. He said early intervention prevents young offenders from becoming adult offenders.

"If you catch them early and get them started in another direction, you might save lots of dollars in the long run," Dolan said.

Starrett said, "Our drug court saves $1 million a year just from our three-county district. It costs $160,000 a year to run."

Starrett said the savings comes from money not spent to lock up drug addicts. In his court, they pay for their own treatment, and if they complete the program, they avoid a prison sentence.

Louisiana statewide Drug Court Director Cary Heck of Mandeville, a statistician, said the math is simple. In Louisiana, where the drug courts pay for the treatment, it costs $4,500 a year for each adult participant and $5,625 for each juvenile. That compares to an estimated $20,000 apiece a year if they were sentenced to prison.

Louisiana has 36 drug courts. Programs range in size from a parish with six participants to the Orleans Parish Drug Court, which has 600 participants.

Heck said recidivism rates improve for drug court participants. He tracked 1,938 participants for a year. Of those, 48 committed new offenses.

"Those numbers are pretty strong evidence that the drug courts are effective," Heck said.

Four of Starrett's Drug Court participants told judges attending the conference that they are grateful for a chance to be drug-free and leading productive lives.

Billy Quarles, 37, of Brookhaven, a cocaine addict for 13 years, recalled crawling through his mother's house to steal money from her purse to buy drugs. Quarles told the judges that he never expected to have a job and earn a living because he was disabled at age four. He accidentally knocked a gun from its place on the wall of his home, and the blast severed one leg and mangled the other. He walks with a prosthesis.

Drug treatment at New Haven Recovery Center led him to his first job. Quarles works with other recovering addicts as a house supervisor at New Haven. He is working to get a General Education Development degree. He graduated Monday from Drug Court in Magnolia. He proudly says he's been clean and sober for four years.

Michael Daley, 30, of Bogue Chitto, who said he had repeatedly engaged in domestic violence and had been hauled into court for failing to pay child support, said he now has his life together enough to have custody of his 3-year-old child. He said he is celebrating 18 months of being drug-free.

"I'm now lead construction supervisor for a man who fired me four years ago for using drugs on the job," Daley said.

Daley said he was introduced to marijuana and alcohol at age 4. (CQ) Without Drug Court, "I would be dead or have killed somebody for drunk driving on the roads or pushing dope on somebody else," Daley told the judges.

Alice Faye Dawson, 39, of Magnolia, said she stabbed her boyfriend while she was on drugs, and he almost died. "We would get high and he would get drunk and want to fight," she said.

The assault charge was eventually dismissed, but she got into trouble for writing checks on the former boyfriend. She was broke. Her children were sent to live with an uncle. She landed in Drug Court.

"This year, I got them back," Dawson said of her children.

Starrett told the judges, "I didn't think Alice Faye was going to make it." He said he is proud of her accomplishment, and of the other participants.

Heck said drug court judges inject their personal styles into the weekly reporting conferences with participants. The common thread is that they offer encouragement and praise for those who make it through another week without using drugs.

"For a lot of the people that the drug courts deal with, they've never had positive reinforcement for anything," Heck said.

McDonald said she was scared to death when Starrett offered her the chance to go to Drug Court instead of prison. "He saw in me what I didn't see. He saw hope," McDonald said.