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

12th Circuit Drug Court asks Sen. Cochran to support national funding

October 28, 2006

HATTIESBURG – Circuit Judge Robert Helfrich and participants in his Drug Court met Saturday, Oct. 28, with Sen. Thad Cochran in Hattiesburg to seek his support for national funding for drug courts.

Judge Helfrich, who presides over the 12th Circuit Drug Court in Forrest and Perry counties, said, “We need your help to ensure that drug courts are fully funded.”

Last year, the U.S. Congress cut funding for drug court grants nationwide from its previous level of $40 million a year to $10 million. This year, President Bush has recommenced $69 million for drug courts. The U.S. House proposal calls for $40 million, but the Senate version calls for $15 million.

Judge Helfrich asked Sen. Cochran to support funding at the $40 million level.

“In 2005 we spent $39.1 million on wild horses and burros. They are important and they are beautiful,” Judge Helfrich said. “Millions of Americans benefit from drug courts. We need your help to provide the resources to reign in our children and our brothers and our sisters that have strayed. They are important and they are more beautiful.”

Sen. Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he is supportive of drug courts.

“I’m convinced this is a good program,” Sen. Cochran said. “ I will do everything I can to see that we get the support that we need.”

Sen. Cochran was in Hattiesburg for the dedication of the new Thad Cochran Center at the University of Southern Mississippi. After the dedication ceremony, he met for about half an hour with Judge Helfrich, Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee, several staff from Pine Grove Recovery Center, Drug Court staff and about 20 program participants and family members.

Federal funding through the Bureau of Justice Assistance provides grants which help start drug courts all over the nation. Several courts in Mississippi have received federal grants. Judge Helfrich said the federal grants are more sorely needed in other states now than here. Mississippi is one of the few states which has a stable source of funding for its 17 drug courts. The Mississippi Legislature in 2004 added a special assessment for drug court operations to fines for felony crimes, traffic offenses and misdemeanors.

“We are in great shape compared to the rest of the nation,” Judge Helfrich said. “We are asking you for the entire nation because everybody has been touched by the disease of addiction.”

A young woman who introduced herself to the Senator only by her first name, Brittany, said both of her parents are enrolled in the 12th District Drug Court. “Drug Court completely changed my parents and my life. It saved my life. And I want other people to have the chance to be saved too,” she said.

All participants were identified only by their first names.

Brittany’s mother, Dawne, her voice quaking with emotion, said, “The first time me and my husband went to jail, our kids were taken away from us and that didn’t stop us from using. We got out of jail in three days and we went back to using. The second time we got put in jail, whenever they came to get us, they told me to look at the pictures on the wall and they told me that I would never see my kids again. That was what was on my wall, the pictures of my kids. Drug Court gave me a chance. And if it hadn’t been for Drug Court I would be dead right now....And I think other people need the same chance I was given to be able to get clean because it’s hard. I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed help and Drug Court gave me that chance.”

Lori and her husband Tim are both enrolled in Drug Court. “ My daughter has her mother back. She never had me before,” she said. “Drug Court gave me my husband back – the husband I never knew.”

Regina, 55, said she was an addict for 37 years. Now she’s taking college courses.

“Being in Drug Court not only saved my life. It gave me a life.... For the first time in my life, I feel like someone actually cares – everyone in Drug Court, the team members, the judge,” Regina said. “I know it costs the state of Mississippi a lot of money but it would be well worth it to save someone’s life.”

Judge Helfrich said it costs between $16,000 and $17,000 a year to incarcerate a person. It costs less than $1,500 a year to keep them under the supervision of Drug Court.

“We build prisons and we’ve locked these people up,” Judge Helfrich said. “They come out. They are better criminals. But they are still addicts.”

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.

Sen. Cochran noted that the first drug court he became familiar with was the one started in 1999 by former Circuit Judge Keith Starrett in the 14th District of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties. It was Mississippi’s first drug court.

Sen. Cochran nominated Judge Starrett to the federal district court, and he hears cases in the Hattiesburg Division of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

Judge Helfrich pointed out that Judge Starrett has sent four people from federal court to the state drug court for special supervision. He said his is the only court of which he is aware in the nation which has such an arrangement to accept federal probationers for drug court supervision.

Sen. Cochran said, “I thank you and Keith Starrett and others who are actively involved. You are to be commended for your leadership in helping provide alternatives.” He thanked the participants for their courage and determination.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the Drug Court gave the Senator a gift to remind him of the funding request. Drug Court Coordinator Lucy Davenport presented him with a canary yellow athletic shirt with the “Helfrich’s Heroes” logo worn by the Drug Court’s softball and basketball team. “Cochran” was written on the back, with the number 40.