DeSoto County Drug Court program begins operation

Similar program planned for Panola, Tallahatchie, Tate and Yalobusha

October 13, 2006

Ten DeSoto County offenders with histories of drug abuse are enrolled in a newly created Drug Court. The program is expected to be expanded to include defendants from Panola, Tallahatchie, Tate and Yalobusha counties by January 2007.

Circuit Judge Robert Chamberlin, who presides over the Drug Court in DeSoto County, said the court needs the program to deal with a high percentage of crimes driven by drug addiction.

“Jail is just going to be a revolving door if we don’t fix their addiction,” Judge Chamberlin said.

“The courts need a weapon which will allow us to get to the actual problem and stop this revolving door of people with drug problems who continue to turn back up in the system,” Judge Chamberlin said.

Judge Chamberlin said he sees people re-arrested on new offenses or violating probation on prior convictions within as little as six months after release from prison. They are re-arrested for drug possession, or they are charged with stealing something to get money to pay for drugs.

Drug courts seek to rehabilitate drug-using offenders through drug treatment and intense supervision with drug testing and frequent court appearances. Drug courts offer the incentive of a chance to remain out of jail and be employed, and the sanction of a jail sentence if participants fail to remain drug-free and in compliance with all program requirements.

“This is your last chance, is the way I look at the Drug Court,” Judge Chamberlin said. “You have to take advantage of it or you are going to do serious jail time.”

The DeSoto County program accepted its first participant on Aug. 14. The numbers are growing quickly.

Circuit Judge Ann H. Lamar has set a target of January to have a drug court in full operation in Panola, Tallahatchie, Tate and Yalobusha counties. But she isn’t waiting to use the alternative program for a few people she believes may benefit.

Judge Lamar said she sees a tremendous need for a program with intensive supervision and frequent drug testing to help keep people from lapsing back into drug use.

“When you are dealing with a 17-year-old burglar, it just breaks your heart to send those folks to the penitentiary,” Judge Lamar said.

She expects to use the Drug Court program for some of those already convicted and facing probation revocation for drug violations, as well as for those charged with new offenses. For probation violators facing a trip back to jail, “they have a lot of incentive to straighten out. But they don’t have the skills to do it without more intensive monitoring.”

Drug courts may accept persons charged with drug possession or non-violent property crimes such as grand larceny.

State law prohibits acceptance into a drug court program of anyone charged with violent crimes or having a conviction for a previous violent felony. Those charged with or having a prior conviction for distribution, sale, possession with intent to distribute, production, manufacture or cultivation of controlled substances are prohibited from being accepted into a drug court program. Drug court programs cannot accept anyone charged with burglary of an occupied dwelling. Also barred from the program is anyone charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in an offense that resulted in the death of a person.

Judge Chamberlin said the Drug Court program is designed to take three years for participants to complete. Participants are required to plead guilty to the charges, and to pay for their own drug abuse treatment. Participants, depending upon their needs, are sent to a residential treatment program or placed in intensive out-patient treatment for a period of one to three months.

After completing treatment, participants will meet weekly with the judge and submit to weekly drug screening. They are subject to intensive supervision by a probation officer. They must remain employed and pay fines as well as a $100 monthly fee to participate. Meetings and drug testing are less frequent for those who successfully progress to later phases of the program.

Some offenders who have been offered a chance to participate in Drug Court opted to take a jail sentence rather than face the program’s stringent requirements, said Drug Court Coordinator Craig Sheley. “We’ve had several say, ‘No, thank you. Give me my conviction and give me my time.’ ”

Sheley is the 17th Circuit Drug Court’s first full-time employee. The 16-year-veteran law officer most recently served as chief deputy for the Panola County Sheriff’s Department. A Department of Corrections probation officer is scheduled to be assigned to the Drug Court Nov. 1. A case manager may be hired in January.

The program’s annual budget is $187,321. That includes $157,321 from the state drug court fund and $30,000 funded by participant fees.

Money for the state drug court fund comes from a special assessment of $10 on 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 17th District program is eligible for consideration for federal funding because members of the Drug Court team recently completed Drug Court Planning Initiative training presented by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance in collaboration with the National Drug Court Institute. Drug courts nationwide compete for the limited funding.

Attending the training program Sept. 25-29 in Austin, Texas, were Judge Lamar, Judge Chamberlin, Sheley, District Attorney John Champion, Public Defender John Watson, Court Administrator Sally Garriga, Deputy Circuit Clerk Peggy Darnell, and treatment provider Bobby Scott.

Sixteen other drug courts operate in Mississippi. The 17th Circuit Drug Court is the seventeenth.