11th District Drug Courts face funding obstacles

December 3, 2003

Judges of the 11th Circuit District are grappling with how to fund fledgling drug courts in Bolivar and Coahoma counties.

No money has been allocated for the extra services that are part of the operation of drug courts. Court staff, prosecutors, the public defender and probation officers as well as mental health and substance abuse counselors have volunteered their time to establish programs that they believe will ultimately save tax dollars.

Circuit Judge Larry O. Lewis said, "It is tough going. Most of the other drug court programs that are in operation have grant money. They have a budget."

"We are trying to get it started without any money," Judge Lewis said. "We are just trying to get ours off the ground."

"We need money to pay for drug testing, to pay for a coordinator," Judge Lewis said. "Our own personnel already have about all they can take care of."

Circuit Judge Albert B. Smith III said, "We are on a voluntary basis. We are not able to take in all the cases that we need to."

The 11th District will seek a federal grant to help support the Drug Court. Legislation which became effective July 1 also permits drug courts to receive gifts, bequests and donations from private sources. No donors have pledged support for the 11th District program.

Drug Court participants are expected to help support the program with fees and pay their own way through drug treatment, said Court Administrator Rebecca Cochran. In addition to being assessed fines for their crimes, participants must pay a $100 entrance fee, a $200 exit fee at the conclusion of their participation, and a court appearance fee of $10 twice a month when they appear before a judge to give an accounting of their progress. They also pay $35 a month for monitoring by a probation officer or $50 a month if they are under house arrest.

Ten drug courts operate in the state, and three are in the planning stages. Funding varies widely. Only one, the 7th Circuit of Hinds County, is operated on money appropriated by the Mississippi Legislature. The appropriation is $150,000 a year. The 4th Circuit of Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties recently received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance. The recently created 12th Circuit Drug Court of Forrest and Perry counties received a $459,000 grant from the private Asbury Foundation. Grants to the 4th and 12th Circuits each will cover three years of operation.

Some other districts that have operated on a combination of grants and county government matching funds are scratching for money to continue their programs as they near the end of the grant periods.

Bolivar and Coahoma counties' programs are running on the commitment of judges and staff who are determined to make their drug courts work.

The Bolivar County Drug Court began operation Sept. 1. It now has eight participants. Fourteen more applicants are being screened, Cochran said.

Coahoma County's Drug Court began operation Nov. 19. Screening is underway for program participants.

Judges Lewis and Smith are considering expanding the program to include participants from neighboring Quitman County. They also see a need in Tunica County, but recognize that the program will have to have funding before it can handle the additional work load of Tunica County.

Drug court proponents say the program saves tax dollars in the long run. 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 the 14th Circuit Court Drug Court in Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties is less than $5,000 per participant, compared to $16,757 per inmate housed in the Department of Corrections.

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.

Judge Lewis said drug courts "are beneficial all the way around, not just to the local community and the individual, but to the state and society in general. If we can put somebody through this program instead of sending them to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, help them get their lives together, help make them productive, taxpaying citizens, everybody wins."

Drug courts combine substance abuse treatment with drug testing, intensive probation supervision and the threat of a prison sentence.

"The whole idea is to make a productive citizen out of somebody who is otherwise having their life ruined with drugs," Judge Lewis said.

Judges Lewis and Smith want to dispel any misconception that Drug Court is soft on crime or a way for offenders to dodge punishment.

Participation is limited to non-violent offenders with drug addiction problems. Drug Court legislation excludes those who have prior convictions or pending charges for crimes of violence. Barred from the program are persons with a prior conviction for or currently facing charges of distribution, sale, possession with intent to distribute, production, manufacture or cultivation of controlled substances. Persons charged with burglary of a dwelling are excluded. Anyone charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in an incident that resulted in a death is ineligible for Drug Court.

Participants must have the approval of prosecutors, who take into account current charges and background. Applicants are subjected to screening by substance abuse counselors to determine whether the underlying problem is addiction. Then applicants must pass screening by a team that includes judges, court staff, prosecutors and their staff, the public defender and mental health and drug counselors.

Program requirements are stringent. Participation starts with drug treatment, either in an in-patient setting or an intensive out-patient program. After treatment, drug testing is done two to four times a week. Participants report weekly to a mental health counselor and a probation officer. They appear before a judge twice a month. They must attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Judge Smith said, "The program is more intense than probation. There is more intense following of the individual than probation ever would be. Some won't be able to go through the rigors of it."

Judge Lewis said, "This is not a coddling program in any way."

Cochran said, "They are still going to suffer the consequences of their bad decisions. However, they will be gaining the tools necessary to help fight their addiction in addition to giving back to the community."

One of the community service projects is picking up trash at the public ball fields and walking trail in Cleveland, Cochran said.

Participants must plead guilty to the charges. First offenders may qualify to have their records wiped clean after successful completion of the Drug Court program. Some participants will still have a criminal conviction on their records.

The program lasts one to two years, Cochran said. Program length depends on how well the participant does. "Their future is in their hands," Cochran said.

Judges may give a second chance to someone who tests positive for drugs, and reinforce that with jail time and extra community service work. Those who don't change their lifestyles and clean up their addiction problems go to prison.

Judge Lewis said, "If they continue to mess up, there is nothing we can do except bring them back and sentence them in the ordinary manner."