Drug Court funding bill signed by Governor
Gov. Haley Barbour on Thursday signed legislation which will provide a funding mechanism for drug courts.
Senate Bill 2892, introduced by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, was passed by the Legislature on May 4. The new law adds a $10 special assessment for drug court operations to fines for felony crimes, traffic offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol, game and fish law violations and litter law violations, and an $8 special assessment to other misdemeanors.
The special assessments could generate as much as $5 million a year, according to a projection by the Administrative Office of Courts.
"We expect it to raise enough to operate 20 to 30 drug courts," said Adams County Judge John Hudson of Natchez, who operates a juvenile drug court.
Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb said, "This can potentially save at least 1,500 prison beds, if it's fully utilized. That's a savings of $30 million a year, at $20,000 per inmate."
Circuit Judge Vernon R. Cotten of Carthage said, "We thank the legislators for their vision and the Governor for bringing this into being."
Eleven drug courts now operate in Mississippi, and five are in the planning stages. The availability of a stable source of funding is expected to generate interest in the formation of additional drug courts.
Drug courts in the past were operated on a mix of local government funding, grants from the state attorney general's office and the U.S. Department of Justice, and private contributions. The Hinds County Drug Court, created in March 2000, is the only drug court previously funded by the Legislature.
The drug court funding bill goes into effect July 1. Money generated from fines will be transferred to the Administrative Office of Courts for distribution to drug courts, said AOC Director Kevin Lackey. A funding distribution formula will be devised by the Drug Court Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee is expected to discuss the funding formula when it meets today in Jackson.
The special assessments for drug courts are similar to those which will provide funding for the state's mental health crisis centers. Senate Bill 2892, introduced as drug court funding legislation, was amended to include the Crisis Intervention Mental Health Fund. Funding for the state's mental health crisis centers will also be generated by a $10 special assessment on felony crimes, traffic offenses, driving under the influence of alcohol, game and fish law violations, litter law violations, and other misdemeanors. Another special assessment of $2 was added to other misdemeanor offenses to provide additional funding for the Commission on Judicial Performance.
The new legislation won't provide instant money, said Judge Cotten. The funds will accrue from special assessments on fines.
"Long-range, it's going to be great, but right now we are still scratching," said Judge Cotten. "My Drug Court team is diligently pursuing funding through business sources and boards of supervisors."
Judge Cotten started a Drug Court for the 8th Circuit Court District of Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties in January. The 8th Circuit Drug Court has no funds and relies on the work of volunteers, including a coordinator who works for free and pays his own expenses.
Circuit Judge Kathy King Jackson said having a continuing source of funding will relieve some of the pressure on judges who have had to worry from year to year about how to fund their programs. Judges Jackson, Cotten and Starrett have built their drug courts with a leap of faith and a determination that they could find the money.
Judge Jackson said, "You just do it and hope that the money comes. Every bit is going to help."
Judge Jackson started her 19th Circuit District program in Greene and George counties in October 2002. She expanded it to include Jackson County in February. The program is funded by county governments and donations from businesses, churches and individuals. The program, with about 60 participants, is at capacity. She has turned away applicants.
The 14th Circuit Drug Court over which Judge Starrett presides was created on a shoestring budget in 1999, and it was looking at lean times. A grant which had helped sustain the program ran out in December 2003. The program had enough money from county government contributions plus fees and savings to run through this December, Judge Starrett said.
But while its operating money dwindled, the program grew. More than 150 are enrolled in the 14th Circuit Drug Court program in Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties. Some are being turned away because the program is at capacity.
Judge Starrett said the drug court funding bill and the 2003 legislation which established a structure for drug courts make Mississippi drug court laws a model.
"It's pretty amazing what Mississippi has done in a little over a year. We have gone from no drug court law to one of the most progressive laws in the nation," Judge Starrett said.
Drug Court 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 8th Circuit of Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties; the 11th Circuit in Bolivar and Coahoma counties; the 12th Circuit of Forrest and Perry counties; the 14th Circuit of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties; the 19th Circuit of George, Greene and Jackson counties; Adams County Youth Court; Madison County Youth Court; and Ridgeland Municipal Court.
Programs in the planning stages include the 3rd Circuit in Lafayette County; the 6th Circuit in Adams County; the 9th Circuit in Issaquena, Sharkey and Warren counties; DeSoto County Youth Court; and Forrest County Youth Court.
For more information about drug courts in Mississippi, go to the web site of the Mississippi Supreme Court, www.mssc.state.ms.us, then click on "AOC."
A copy of Senate Bill 2892 is available on the Mississippi Legislature's web site, www.ls.state.ms.us. Go to "Bill Status," click on "2004 Regular Session," click "Select a Measure," and enter Senate Bill 2892.