8th District Drug Court discussion set for Dec. 2

November 20, 2003

Circuit Judge Vernon R. Cotten will discuss plans for a Drug Court for Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 during a meeting at the VIP Room at the Golden Moon at the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw.

The meeting will be hosted by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Chief Phillip Martin will give welcoming remarks. Circuit Judge Keith Starrett, who established a Drug Court in the 14th Circuit Court District in south Mississippi in 1999, will be the keynote speaker.

Guests are expected to include Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman, Justice Kay Cobb, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Roger H. McMillin Jr. and Commissioner of Corrections Christopher Epps.

County, municipal, judicial and law enforcement officials of the 8th Circuit Court District have been invited to attend, along with business leaders, hospital administrators and educators.

Judge Cotten hopes to have a fledgling Drug Court operating Jan. 1.

"It targets the person who is hopelessly addicted, with a view toward rehabilitation through very intensive drug testing, counseling and therapy over a five year period," he said.

Judge Cotten is searching for legislative funding as well as grants and foundation money to get the program started. "We are going to try to create a skeletal program to be as functional as we can be," he said.

The 8th Circuit District program will be modeled after the one that Judge Starrett uses in Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties.

Drug Court is for offenders charged with drug possession. Drug sellers, drug dealers and violent offenders are not eligible.

Prosecutors and police are consulted about who may be referred to the program, and can reject applicants and pursue full prosecution. "District attorneys and law enforcement officials have veto rights over who is accepted into the program," Judge Cotten said.

Drug Court participants plead guilty to charges and are placed on intensive probation supervision. If they complete a program of good behavior for five years, their records may be wiped clean.

Drug Court participants are required to complete drug treatment at their own expense. They are subjected to frequent drug screening. They will meet weekly with Judge Cotten to give an accounting of their progress.

They must pay all fines and fees. They must get and keep a job. Those who do not have a high school diploma must pursue a General Education Development (GED) degree. Some will be required to do community service work.

Judges Starrett and Cotten are quick to point out that Drug Court is not soft on crime.

Judge Starrett said, "This is not 'hug a thug.' There are two ways out of Drug Court: graduate or go to the penitentiary."

Judge Cotten said the supervision of Drug Court participants is intensive and tough. "The defendant is accountable weekly to the drug court coordinator, the probation officer and the judge," he said. In some districts which operate drug courts, "It is so tough that there are some defendants who would rather go straight to jail than go through the intensiveness of the therapy, the counseling and the testing."

The volume of drug crimes and the influence of drugs in other crimes has convinced Judge Cotten of the need for an alternative to traditional prison sentences for drug addicts.

Locking up drug addicts doesn't cure addiction, Judge Cotten said.

Judge Cotten, who has seen hundreds of drug-related crimes, said, "The scenarios are the same: the defendant pleads guilty to possession of a controlled substance and acknowledges being hopelessly addicted to drugs. Or they plead guilty to theft crimes such as burglary of an automobile, business or home. When I ask why, they tell me they are so controlled by their addiction that they steal to get money to buy drugs. Their lives have been decimated by drug addiction."

"This week I sentenced a 26-year-old mother to five years in prison for breaking into a church to steal property to get money to buy drugs," Judge Cotten said.

Judge Cotten said, "The same people keep coming back. They aren't learning from the jail experience. If we in the criminal justice system keep doing things the same way, we aren't learning either."

Judge Cotten called locking up drug addicts "a band-aid approach." He said, "It's getting them off the street, but not dealing with the heart of the problem, which is drug addiction."

Judge Cotten said addressing the root problem of drug addiction has a domino effect that reaches beyond the drug offenders. "If you can save the person, this results in saving his or her family, keeping the family together and enabling the offender to keep working to pay fines and support the family," he said.

Taxpayers benefit by not bearing the burden of paying for incarceration and welfare.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections has more than 20,000 inmates. During the past decade, the prison population more than doubled, and the cost of operating the state prison system more than tripled. The 2002 Department of Corrections budget was more than $262 million.

Drug Court treatment is cheaper than imprisonment. State Auditor Phil Bryant compared costs in a performance audit released in January 2003. The audit noted that the estimated annual cost to operate Judge Starrett's 14th Circuit Court Drug Court is less than $5,000 per participant, compared to $16,757 per inmate housed in the Department of Corrections.

Ten drug courts operate in the state, and three are in the planning stages. Programs now in operation are the 2nd Circuit of Hancock, Harrison and Stone Counties; the 4th Circuit of Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties; the 7th Circuit of Hinds County; the 11th Circuit of Bolivar, Coahoma, Quitman and Tunica counties; the 12th Circuit of Forrest and Perry counties; the 14th Circuit of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties; the 19th Circuit in George and Greene counties; the Adams County Youth Court; the Madison County Youth Court; and the Ridgeland Municipal Court.

In addition to the 8th Circuit Drug Court, others in the planning stages are the 6th Circuit of Adams, Amite, Franklin and Wilkinson counties; and the Forrest County Youth Court.

For more information about drug courts in Mississippi, go to the web site of the Mississippi Supreme Court,", then click on "AOC." The Administrative Office of Courts assists the state's drug court programs.