Drug court works to turn lives around

A sign marking the 16th Judicial Circuit's Drug Court covering Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Noxubee counties.
Staff Writer

It's the proverbial dog chasing its tail, an alternative sentencing program succeeds at changing lives but its strict rules, costs and long process make it hard to expand.

That's the dilemma faced by the felony drug court program in the 16th Judicial Circuit covering Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Noxubee counties.

"I've seen people who it turned their entire life around. It did it for me, I was lost, they were lost. I've seen people get jobs and keep them, graduate from college, it saved me," 31-year-old Quinton Baity said of the program.

The judicial circuit's drug court started in January 2011 following a push by Judge Lee Howard, who remains the judge who handles drug court cases.

Baity got involved not long afterwards when his pill-popping addiction got him arrested in Clay and Lowndes counties on charges of prescription fraud.

"I was using Lortab, Xanax, codeine, everything like that, it was a cheap way to get my 'happy,'" explained Baity, who was an X-ray technician at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle and used his connections there to fuel his habit.

When he got into the fledgling drug court program, only six others were in it.

He graduated on Sept. 11, 2015 and now lives and works in Jackson although his family remains in the Golden Triangle.

It's not unusual for offenders to take that long -- three to five years -- to complete the program, according to 16th Circuit Drug Court Coordinator April Harris. 

"Man, it's hard, it's hard as heck, and it's not cheap. I wanted to quit at times, but my family, my mom, my sisters, my wife, they all kept at me. And they'd spent so much money once I got in, I couldn't let them down, I couldn't let myself down. I made the decision I wanted to be a family man, wanted to be part of my children's lives," Baity recalled.

In addition to his family, Baity credits Harris.

"She was stern, she got onto you, there were consequences. But she was motivating. If you showed you were trying, that you were serious, she was there for you," Baity said of Harris.

"It's a process, it's very hard. It's meant to be that way," Harris explains. "You aren't cured of a drug addiction and all that goes with it overnight. And there are roadblocks out there, but we try to help in every case we can."

The rewards come in men and women like Baity who rebuild their lives.

"You really can't measure the success by graduation rates or failure rates. The changes you see in people over time, when they get clean, when they get jobs, get an education ... they are new people," Harris stated.

"And it's not just in them. They were destroying so many lives, families, friends, children, spouses, parents. When you see the change, it really spreads out across more than just one person," she continued, her voice rising from the excitement caused by just thinking about the successes.

The program focuses on addicts, not criminals who also are addicts. Participants must get treatment, take drug tests regularly, sometimes daily, work toward an education, employment and a number of other standards.

"When we screen people, we lay it all on the line. They are getting money for drugs and alcohol somewhere. They can do the same thing for the program if they really want to take their lives back," stated Jennifer Cummings, who has been the coordinator of the First Circuit District Drug Court since it started in 2008.

Statistically for the 16th Judicial Circuit, the numbers for those who complete the program at any given time hover in the 20 percent range.

Those percentages are comparable to drug courts in other districts, according to numbers from the state Supreme Court, which has responsibility for drug courts across the state.

But drug court isn't like high school or college where you meet certain standards in a certain amount of time and then get a degree. People finish at different times so completion statistics don't always reflect what's actually happening.

Harris recently completed the first group of 22 people in the program. Another group is in place and she is working on getting a third group started. Of the 47 who have been in the program, only eight have totally failed, she says.

"You aren't cured overnight. This is intense and it takes time and work," Harris notes.

Since its inception, the Golden Triangle program has averaged about 20 people a year enrolled.

Its numbers are below the older and more-established programs in the First and Third circuits which have more than 200 participants.

Those numbers and the program's slow growth are the root of frustrations for some attorneys and court observers who would like to see the program helping more offenders. Harris would, too.

"I think the state needs to broaden the parameters a little, maybe give coordinators and judges more ability to use their discretion to let more people in," said Carrie Jourdan, a Columbus attorney who does criminal defense work. "At the same time, we need to figure out a way to find more money to help offenders."

"Everyone loves the idea. It's great and innovative. But we've got to find ways to give more people a chance at it. That's the frustration," echoed Donna Smith, the senior public defender in Lowndes County.

"Felony drug court is a really good idea, but it's expensive. Not exorbitant by any means, but a drug addict is on a bare-bones budget. It's hard for a person to pay the monthly costs, treatment and everything else. A lot of our people just can't afford it," Jourdan added.

"One of our biggest issues here is people don't want to put in the work over three to five years that it can take," Harris said. "They'd rather do three to six months in prison or jail and get out and take their chances. We also have a lot of people with prior records that make them ineligible.

"And treatment can be expensive and we have a shortage of options sometimes. If an offender doesn't have money or a family to help with costs, it can be difficult. We'd like to get more people in the program and are working on it, but we have guidelines we have to follow," she continued.

Rules also focus on "full-on addicts."

"If they aren't, we may do them more harm than good by taking them in. And medical issues also rule some people out. If you are taking certain drugs, you can't be in drug court. If they don't have options from a health standpoint, they can't meet the guidelines," Harris noted.

The age of the programs and staffing differences also impact the number of participants.

Cummings' district, which covers Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties in northeast Mississippi, has had the same staff since the program began.

"We've been blessed to have people who have been committed from the beginning and stayed with it. That makes a difference. The communication between treatment people and the staff, everything, is better. And they see (First District Judge Seth Pounds) every week. That's consistent, they know it and they know what to expect," she said.

That district's staff also is larger, including a case manager, counselor, probation officer, among others.

"Over time, working with the judge and with the Supreme Court, we've developed a little leeway to get people in while still meeting the rules we have to follow," Cummings said. "It took us time to get our numbers up. We reached out everywhere we could, civic clubs, community groups, we all spread the word. And once people started to see the successes, it helped the program grow, it helped support to grow."

Interestingly, the First District has fewer people screened but not admitted than the 16th, according to state records. But the Third and Fifth Districts, which also have larger, more-established programs, screen and reject more than the 16th.

By contrast, in terms of staff, the 16th District has just two people, Harris and one other, and has suffered from turnover.

"It's 24-7, but the rewards are worth it," Harris sighed.

The result is Harris and her assistant act as chief cook and bottle washer, doing drug screens, home checks, paperwork, counseling and just about everything else. At times, drug tests are contracted out.

"It all comes back to funding. The program has staff issues because people get certified and then move on to greener pastures," Jourdan noted.

"I don't know the answer. Maybe it needs to be tweaked a little to make it more user-friendly," the veteran attorney added.

Since taking office two years ago, District Attorney Scott Colom has expanded the use of pre-trial diversion to compliment drug court. While the two options have some similarities, they also are very different. PTD, as diversion is known, focuses more on non-violent criminal acts and participants can have a prior record. Drug tests and other standards are similar in both programs.

One thing is consistent from program-to-program, jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction.

"Once they finish, when they do, they feel a sense of accomplishment they've never felt before. It's something amazing to see," Cummings stated.

"When you see not just the person change, but when their kids' grades improve, they get a job and earn promotions, it's the kind of thing you can't put into words," Harris described.

"They get some more successes, get the public educated about what is happening, the program will grow. I can't say enough about it," Baity concluded.