The 16th District Circuit Court received certification Monday to initiative a drug court program for Clay, Oktibbeha, Noxubee and Lowndes Counties that would allow felony drug abusers an opportunity for rehabilitation and a new start in life.
Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard gave an overview of the drug court program Thursday during the Clay County Board of Supervisors meeting. Howard said the drug program is being created for adults who have pled guilty to the charge of illegal drug use, not for those who have felony charges for the sale of illegal drugs.
Howard said about two years ago the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court began pushing for a Circuit Court Drug Program for the 16th District, and Howard said as soon as the 16th District received the appointment of a third Circuit Judge, which was given Jan. 1 to Lee Coleman, creating a drug program would be appropriate.
The drug program will start in Oktibbeha County around the end of July or first of August, Howard said, then will move to Clay, Noxubee and Lowndes Counties, in that order. Howard said it's important for the 16th District Circuit Court to start out with a small number of participants in the program so that judges can get used to the new program, and with Lowndes County having the most number of offenders, it is best to save this county and its participants for last. In order to have a drug program, there must be a lead county, which Oktibbeha County was chosen as, and through the lead county, payments, reimbursements and other administrative tasks will be handled.
At the beginning of this year, Howard hired April Edwards of Clay County as the drug court coordinator, who has been working with Howard in training sessions on the establishment of the drug court. Edwards said serious abusers will first be sent to inpatient treatment facilities, and once this phase is complete they will go into an intensive outpatient program with their treatment provider. Participants will be monitored with frequent random drug tests multiple times a week and will meet with their probation officer.
“They will have a full schedule, so they won't have much down time to be out wandering because this also helps them get their GED and jobs to get their lives back on track to become law-abiding, tax paying citizens,” Edwards said.
Howard said participants can be tested every day, three times a week or as often as necessary as a means of monitoring their progress. About 14 people, including prosecutors and law enforcement officers, are already involved with the initiation of this program. The program last about three to five years, but, due to phases participants go through, the final years of the program aren't expected to be as intense as the first year, he said.
“Drug court is not an easy way out to anybody,” Howard said. “It is not an alternative way of going to jail. There are very limited numbers of people who will actually qualify for drug court by statute. It is a post-plea sentencing option for a judge. They call it a drug court, but it is not a court. It is a sentencing alternative that judges can use to make people who have addiction problems or serious abuse problems go and get court sponsored, tough treatment.”
Through Mississippi Supreme Court funding as well as fees and assessments imposed upon those charged with felony drug use, the establishment of the drug program is of no charge to the county and no charge to taxpayers. Offenders must pay their way through the program if they are sentenced to go through the program. Previous court fines and costs must be paid before advancement into the drug program.
Abusers who complete the program can have their record expunged except for the charge of driving under the influence, Howard said. In order to remain in the program, drug abusers going through the program must not receive another felony charge. Those who are charged with a second felony will be immediately removed.
Howard said the idea for a drug program for the 16th District is to provide positive support to those needing help to stop abusing drugs.
“Nobody goes voluntarily as a general rule. Nobody who is a drug abuser is going to jump up and down and say, 'I want to go,'” Howard said. “It doesn't work that way. They may think they are getting out of trouble by going to drug court, (but) they will find that drug court usually is tougher than any other sentence they get...(But) when you get them clean, what you usually hear back is, 'You saved my life.'”