Judges discuss drug court programs

April 24, 2003

Drug courts succeed because of intensive supervision by judges, frequent drug testing, immediate sanctions and mutual support of addicts who struggle with the same kinds of problems, judges who run drug courts around the state told their fellow judges at a judicial conference in Gulfport on Thursday.

Four circuit court districts and one youth court operate drug courts. Two other circuit court districts are poised to begin operating drug courts. More drug courts are expected to be formed. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed statewide drug court legislation on April 19.

Eleven judges who preside over drug courts or are about to launch drug courts shared their ideas in a panel discussion Thursday during the Mississippi Trial and Appellate Judges Spring Conference in Gulfport.

Adams County Judge John Hudson of Natchez, who also serves as Youth Court judge, operates the state's only juvenile drug court program. Hudson said the early intervention and prevention deter youthful offenders from graduating to adult criminals.

"Drug court makes a huge difference. You see lives change in front of your eyes," Hudson said.

"Those guys aren't going back out breaking into people's houses and stealing cars," Hudson said.

Hudson requires most drug court participants to report to him at two-week intervals. Some must show up weekly. "They have to see me on a regular basis and know they can have some immediate consequences," Hudson said. If they test positive for drug use or get into other trouble, "they are going to be dealt with immediately."

"The whole concept of the drug court is a judge-driven court," Hudson said.

Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb told the judges, "It's something you will get more satisfaction from, seeing changes in these people's lives, than everything else that you do."

Starrett started the state's oldest drug court four years ago in Pike, Lincoln and Walthall counties. Starrett said 89 percent of the people who successfully completed the drug court program have stayed clean and sober. His program has an 11 percent recidivism rate. Starrett said that compares to a national recidivism rate of 25 percent in drug court programs.

Starrett's program has grown to include a separate court for drunken drivers. Pike County Judge John Price presides over the court for alcohol abusers, including those from Lincoln and Walthall counties.

Circuit Judge Margaret Carey-McCray of Greenville said the participants themselves help each other succeed. "Over time they support each other in their successes. It becomes somewhat of a family type atmosphere," she said.

Carey-McCray's district includes Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties.

That's not to say drug courts are a soft approach. Circuit Judge Stephen Simpson of Gulfport said they are tougher than conventional probation.

"We do not want to be perceived as a warm, fuzzy, kiss, hug and pat on the back program," Simpson said.

Simpson said the range of sanctions and the immediacy make drug courts more effective than conventional criminal court's imposition of probation with the possibility of revocation of a suspended sentence. A drug court participant may be placed in jail immediately for a period of hours or days as an attention-getter, then be given another chance.

Simpson and Circuit Judge Robert Walker of Gulfport will soon begin presiding over drug courts in Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties. Walker said he expects screening for participants to begin in about six weeks.

Walker said the three counties contributed a total of $70,000 to operate the program for a year. "It is not really that outrageous to get up and running," Walker said. He said he expects to also apply for federal grant money.

About $45 million is available nationwide from the Bureau of Justice Assistance with a grant application deadline coming up May 22, said Joey Craft, project manager with the state Administrative Office of Courts. Craft said about 200 communities nationwide will be selected to receive grants.

Budgets and funding sources vary among the state's drug courts. Most charge a weekly or monthly fee to participants and require them to pay for their own treatment. Carey-McCray said paying for treatment was too much of a drain on the program, so most participants have to pay their own way.

Hinds County is the exception. Hinds County Judge Mike Parker said most of the program participants are indigent, so the court pays for the treatment.

Circuit Judge Kathy King Jackson of Pascagoula has the newest operating drug court. Since October 2002, she has placed 15 people in a drug court program in George and Greene counties.

Circuit Judge Robert Helfrich of Hattiesburg, whose district includes Forrest and Perry counties, said he hopes to begin operating a drug court by October.

The new statewide drug court statute, passed as Senate Bill 2605, goes into effect July 1.

Under the statute, the Administrative Office of Courts will be responsible for certification and monitoring of local drug courts according to standards established by a State Drug Court Advisory Committee. The committee, which has not yet been constituted, will have between seven and 11 members.

Limitations on drug court participants include:

  • no crimes of violence. The charge which is the subject of the drug court referral cannot be a crime of violence. The participant must not have another pending charge for a crime of violence. People with previous convictions for crimes of violence are not eligible;
  • no charges of burglary of an occupied dwelling;
  • no charges of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs that resulted in the death of a person;
  • no charges of distribution, sale, possession with intent to distribute, production, manufacture or cultivation of drugs, and no prior convictions for those charges.

The new statute will allow participants who complete a drug court program to have the charges and prosecution dismissed. In the case of a guilty plea, the conviction may be expunged. Drunken driven charges are an exception and cannot be expunged.