Judge Cotten outlines Drug Court plans for 8th District

December 3, 2003

Drug courts save people and tax dollars, trial judges told about 300 state and local government officials and business and community leaders at Choctaw Tuesday evening.

Circuit Judge Vernon R. Cotten of Carthage convened the meeting to outline his plans for a drug court for the 8th Circuit District, which includes Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties. Judge Cotten hopes to have the program operating by Jan. 1.

Judge Cotten said, "We wanted to do it publicly because the concept of a drug court is revolutionary. This is about values. This is about saving fallen people."

"It is the right thing to do," Judge Cotten said.

Drug court combines drug treatment with intensive probation supervision. Participants face drug testing several times a week and meet weekly with the judge. The treatment element is backed by the threat of a prison sentence for those who don't stay off drugs. They must keep a job and do community service work.

Judge Cotten said drug courts have a domino effect.

"If you can save the person, you can save the family, more than likely," Judge Cotten said. People who go through Drug Court are paying their fines and supporting their families.

Judge Cotten said, "It's good for the taxpayers. The welfare rolls shrink."

The meeting was hosted by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians at the Golden Moon at the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw. Tribal officials are supportive of the concept of a drug court, although no formal multi-jurisdictional arrangement has been established.

Chief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians said, "We are also interested in this for our young people who might try out drugs, and some do."

Choctaw Tribal Supreme Court Chief Justice Rae Nell Vaughn said, "Our charge is timely as we strive to create partnerships across jurisdictions. We welcome and are open to ideas with a sharing of strategies to counter the illness, and this is an illness. The issues of alcohol, drugs and violence know no jurisdictional boundary. These issues impact our children, our loved ones and communities and it will take all of us to make a difference."

Judge Cotten said he has become frustrated with sentencing a seemingly endless number of men and women to prison for crimes rooted in drug addiction. At sentencing, he orders each one to receive alcohol and drug treatment while incarcerated. But the treatment the inmates are getting is not intense enough to help them overcome addiction once they are released, he said.

Judge Cotten said, "It's like putting a band-aid on a deep and serious wound. It's not fixing the problem that sent them there in the first place."

Judge Cotten was quick to counter any notion that a drug court would be soft on crime.

"It's not about the circuit judge going soft on crime. It's not about coddling the drug dealers and the sellers. They are despicable," Judge Cotten said, and their cases won't go to Drug Court.

Drug Court is for addicts charged with drug possession and non-violent crimes rooted in drug addiction.

Law enforcement from several jurisdictions were among the standing room only crowd. Judge Cotten said he anticipated some skepticism from law enforcement officers who risk their lives to lock up criminals. He explained that the district attorney and law enforcement officers have to approve all candidates for Drug Court. The district attorney has veto power over who is accepted.

Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb, who in 1999 became the first circuit judge in the state to start a drug court, said law enforcement officers are supportive of the 14th Circuit Court District Drug Court in Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties.

"Drug courts are about safer streets and safer communities. They are not soft on crime," Judge Starrett said. "It also gives your prosecutors more time to concentrate on the worst criminals."

Judge Starrett said the average drug addict may commit 50 felonies in a year to support a drug habit. Drug courts ideally enroll a participant within seven days after arrest and start with a guilty plea. The quick response puts a likely repeat offender under tight supervision. Judge Starrett requires participants to stay in Drug Court for a minimum of two years. Some stay longer.

There are two ways out, Judge Starrett quips: graduate or go to the penitentiary.

"This is not a free ride," Judge Starrett said. Participants must work and pay fines, fees and restitution.

"If they don't have a job, I let them work for the county on the garbage truck for free. You would be surprised how quickly they get a job. It works," Judge Starrett said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

He recalled one of his Drug Court participants, a man about 40, showing him a pay check stub. It was the first wage he had ever earned.

Judge Starrett said drug courts are more effective than the conventional approach of locking up offenders. He estimated that 80 percent of all crime involves alcohol or drug problems. He said that more than 90 percent of the people sent to prison will eventually be released, and that 75 percent of those who come out of prison will commit more crimes.

Judge Starrett cited a 12 percent recidivism rate for those who have completed Drug Court in the 14th Circuit Court District.

Judge Starrett said drug courts are also cost effective. He said it costs about $200,000 a year to run a drug court. He estimated that the 14th District Drug Court saves about $1.2 million a year that would otherwise be spent for inmate housing.

"You do the math," Judge Starrett said.

State Auditor Phil Bryant told the crowd that he estimated savings of about $5 million a year if drug courts were implemented statewide. The figures are based on his office's January 2003 performance audit, which compared the cost of 14th District Drug Court operations with conventional incarceration. The projections are based on an estimated 500 participants.

Some savings are harder to measure, Judge Starrett said. "If you save a crack baby, what do you save?"

Judge Cotten estimated that the work required to run a drug court will increase his work load by about 25 percent. He plans to meet with Drug Court participants weekly in addition to his other duties. He may schedule some meetings at night.

Judge Cotten said, "I am committed to this. This is what I want to do. I believe in it. It's right."