Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Judge Cotten announces plans for DUI Court

April 13, 2006

Circuit Judge Vernon Cotten said he hopes that a new program to treat DUI offenders will produce safer streets and highways and help people with alcohol problems while saving money for taxpayers.

“We are going to get the drunks off the highways,” Judge Cotten said.

More than 60 people, including public officials, law enforcement officers and interested citizens gathered at the Leake County Courthouse in Carthage on Wednesday, April 12, to hear Judge Cotten and others explain plans for the 8th Circuit District Drug Court’s DUI Court. The new program will begin accepting third time felony DUI offenders into the Drug Court at Judge Cotten’s next term of court.

The 8th Circuit District includes Leake, Neshoba, Newton and Scott counties. Judge Cotten’s next term of criminal court is in May in Leake County, June in Scott County, July in Neshoba County, and August in Newton County.

Judge Cotten said a high recidivism rate among alcohol-related offenders indicates to him that conventional jail sentences don’t cure the problem. He said that sending a person with an alcohol problem to prison does not fix the problem, and incarceration is expensive. When those people serve out their sentences, they are likely to repeat the same behavior.

“They just don’t have any fear. They are going to do it. It’s part of their makeup,” Judge Cotten said.

Judge Cotten said he believes treatment is needed with strict supervision and testing for alcohol use. He said the intense supervision provided in Drug Court will be tougher and more effective.

The DUI Court will require third time felony DUI offenders to plead guilty to the charge and accept a five-year sentence and a substantial fine. They will spend three months in the county jail, with the remaining 57 months under intense supervision, Judge Cotten said. After completing the jail time, they will spend from one to three months in treatment. Weems Community Mental Health Center in Meridian is expected to be the treatment provider.

Judge Cotten noted that while alcohol and drugs are both addictive, the treatments are different. “There is a very significant difference in dealing with the garden variety drug offender who is hooked on crystal methamphetamine or cocaine and dealing with the DUI offender,” he said. “It’s a different pharmacology.”

A third DUI offense within five years is a felony punishable by one to five years in the custody of the Department of Corrections and fines of $2,000 to $5,000 under Mississippi Code Section 63-11-30. An attorney general’s opinion states that the mandatory one year sentence may be served under house arrest.

Judge Cotten said that the Attorney General’s office has reviewed plans for the DUI Court program and determined that the program meets the requirement that third time felony DUI offenders serve a mandatory sentence of at least one year.

Under the DUI Court program, after completing three months in jail and up to three months in treatment, DUI offenders will live at home under supervised probation and keep a job. They will meet regularly with probation officers and undergo frequent testing for the presence of alcohol.

DUI Court participants must refrain from alcohol use or face the possibility of a trip back to jail. Drug Court probation officers enforce the no drinking rule with frequent meetings and frequent testing at the Drug Court office and at participants’ homes. Drug Court Coordinator Marcus Ellis said probation officers may show up at a participant’s home at 10:30 p.m. with a portable Breathalyzer and a urinalysis specimen cup. It doesn’t matter whether the person smells of alcohol. They will be tested.

A person caught drinking at home may get another chance, but will face electronic monitoring. However, if they drink and drive again while in the program, program supervisors will ask the judge to send them to jail for five years, Ellis said.

The DUI Court will use a monitor that resembles a set of headphones strapped to the ankle. The device monitors for the presence of alcohol in perspiration. The device, known as the Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor, or SCRAM, tests for alcohol consumption every hour.

Terry Fain of Dallas, Texas, southwest regional manager of Alcohol Monitoring Systems, which provides the devices, said, “Whether they are at work or at school or at church, monitoring goes with them.”

The SCRAM monitor costs the participant between $5 and $10 a day. They also will pay $100 a month in fees which support the Drug Court program, Ellis said.

“The Drug Court is fully funded at no cost to the taxpayers,” Ellis said. “It is not going to cost the taxpayers a dime.”

Danny Berry, Executive Director of the Mississippi Chapter of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, attended the gathering in Carthage. “We are very supportive of the project,” Berry said. “We think it will be successful, as the Drug Court has been.”

Judge Cotten said the 8th Circuit District Drug Court has had a success rate of 95 percent, compared to the national average of an 80 percent success rate of such programs. Since the Drug Court program’s inception in January 2004, four people have been removed from the program and sent to prison, one has been sentenced to the Regimented Inmate Discipline Program (RID), one was arrested a few days ago on a fugitive warrant, two remain fugitives, and two have died.

There are now approximately 70 people with non-violent drug-related offenses in the 8th Circuit District Drug Court program. People pleading guilty as drug dealers and sellers are prohibited from participation in the program.

Referring to the DUI Court, Judge Cotten said, “We are not unrealistic. We believe that there are going to be failures. But if we keep them in that mode of accountability, we are going to have some measure of success.”

“There’s not a person in this room today whose life has not been the excesses of illegal drugs and alcohol. We all have a stake in our criminal justice system,” Judge Cotten said.

“If it really works, this will be dollars saved and a far greater opportunity for that person to be rehabilitated,” Judge Cotten said. “I’m thoroughly committed to the concept of believing that this represents an opportunity to help fallen people, to fix broken lives.”