National drug court executive speaks in Jackson

March 5, 2002

The head of a national drug court education, training and research organization told a Jackson audience Tuesday that drug courts work and the proof is in the numbers.

The recidivism rate for drug court participants ranges from 4 to 30 percent, said Karen Freeman-Wilson, chief executive officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and executive director of the National Drug Court Institute in Alexandria, Va.

Offender recidivism rates are in the range of 50 to 80 percent nationwide in courts that have no programs to divert drug offenders into treatment, Freeman-Wilson said.

Freeman-Wilson said 78 percent of drug court participants obtained or kept employment.

"I've seen it work," Freeman-Wilson said.

Freeman-Wilson, who served as a Gary, Ind., city court judge 1994-2000, presided over that city's drug court from its inception in 1996.

She spoke Tuesday to about 20 members and guests of the Hinds County Drug Court Steering Committee at a meeting at the Eudora Welty Library.

The policy-making board for the Hinds County Drug Court Diversion Program, chaired by Rep. Alyce Griffin Clarke of Jackson, is made up of judges, public defenders, prosecutors, law officers, treatment providers, educators, city and county government representatives, community organizations, business interests and religious leadership.

Hinds County Drug Court Diversion Program Director Brenda Mathis said she is seeking an entity to do an evaluation of the local program. Mathis said she knows that it has been a success since it started two years ago, but she wants to measure it by the numbers.

Sixty people are enrolled in the program now, and four others are in jail accused of committing new crimes, Mathis said. Three people have completed the two-year program, Mathis said.

The Hinds County Drug Court accepts non-violent offenders charged with drug possession. The office of the Hinds County Public Defender does initial assessments and makes referrals to the Hinds County District Attorney's office. The district attorney's office screens the referrals for legal eligibility and sends some cases to Drug Court.

To get into the Drug Court program, a defendant is required to plead guilty to a felony charge. The judge withholds adjudication of guilt, placing the participant on a good-behavior program.

Participants receive treatment for their addiction. They are required to get and keep a job. If they don't have a high school diploma, they must enroll in a General Education Development program.

Giving job and life skills to people trying to cope with drug addiction is part of the treatment solution, said James Coleman, a board member of Improving Quality of Life Inc., one of the treatment providers. The organization, funded by the Department of Mental Health, does GED training and computer skills training, Coleman said. It provides family therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

"We do a Renaissance" on the person, Coleman said.

Freeman-Wilson doesn't measure success in terms of absolute abstinence from drugs. She sees progress when a drug addict tries to stay clean, even if he or she sometimes fails. Some jail time may serve as a reinforcer, she said.

"Is your freedom important? Is your sobriety important? Sometimes you want to get their attention," she said.

Hinds County Public Defender Tom Fortner at the meeting Tuesday said early intervention is difficult.

"It appears to me that we are waiting a long time after the initial arrest," Fortner said. "Sometimes people are sitting in jail for six months."

Fortner said a public defender will be appointed to represent an indigent defendant within 48 hours of arrest. Many defendants charged with drug possession post bond quickly. And when they are out of jail, talking to someone about getting into a drug court program may not be high on the defendant's priority list.

Freeman-Wilson said law enforcement officers may play an important role in identifying people who have drug problems and who would benefit from drug court. "Nobody knows better than the city or county police who's on drugs and who's not," she said.

But Fortner said people facing arrest aren't likely to confess their addiction to law enforcement, but rather to a lawyer representing them.

Rep. Clarke, a longtime advocate of drug courts, said a sector of the public believes them to be soft on crime.

Freeman-Wilson said Drug Court is a tough avenue for judges and defendants.

"The easiest thing in the world for a judge to do, in my opinion, is to send somebody to jail," she said.

And jail looks easier to some defendants, particularly those facing misdemeanor charges, she said. They can be in and out of jail in a matter of months, whereas many drug court programs include several years of probation.

Freeman-Wilson said jail time doesn't cure a drug problem.

"You send them to jail. They get out of jail. They use. These same folks you are sending to prison are coming out re-offending, and you are not necessarily going to catch them," Freeman-Wilson said. "They are breaking into our houses, breaking into our cars, engaging in check fraud."

"We haven't solved the problem" with prison, she said. "You are still importing the problem back to the community, and you are spending a lot of money doing it."

Freeman-Wilson said the numbers of drug courts are growing nationwide. In 1994, there were 12. She said 700 are in existence now and another 500 are in the planning stages.

Mississippi has three drug courts. They are in the 7th Circuit Court District of Hinds County; the 4th Circuit Court District of Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties; and the 14th Circuit Court District of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties. A fourth drug court is in the planning stages in Harrison County.

For more information, Hinds County Drug Court Diversion Program Director Brenda Mathis may be reached at 601-714-6205.

State court system Public Information Officer Beverly Pettigrew Kraft may be reached at 601-354-7452.