Pubdate: Sun, 06 Jul 2008
Source: Clarion-Ledger, The (Jackson, MS)
Copyright: 2008 The Clarion-Ledger
Author: Judge Robert Chamberlin
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


Saving Taxpayer Dollars While Offering Effective Treatment, Tough 
Regimen Remains Goal

While The Clarion-Ledger editors would frown on my leaving a large
open space on their editorial pages, I believe that this statement
does, in fact, succinctly sum up the case for drug courts.

For those unfamiliar with drug courts, they are special courts given
the responsibility to handle cases involving drug-using offenders
through comprehensive supervision, drug testing, treatment services
and immediate sanctions and incentives. Drug courts rely upon the
daily communication and cooperation of judges, court personnel,
probation and treatment providers.

They are relatively new to the Mississippi criminal justice system,
with the first felony drug court being implemented by former Circuit
Court Judge and current U.S. District Court Judge Keith Starrett in
1999. Judge Starrett is considered by most to be the pioneer of
Mississippi drug courts.

In evaluating the drug court movement, I think it is extremely
important to first analyze what drug court is not. State law mandates
that drug court is not a resource available to drug dealers, persons
with a past conviction or present charge for a violent crime, persons
charged with a DUI causing injury, persons charged with burglarizing
an occupied dwelling, among others.

These persons are simply not allowed in drug court. The criminal
justice system can deal with these offenders in other ways, most
likely incarceration.

Drug court is not, as will be further explained below, some type of
easy alternative for its participants. Quite the contrary, I have had
potential participants decline the program because it would be too

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, while serving as state auditor, released a
report from his office which concluded, in part, that the drug court
systems are "an effective community-based strategy to reduce drug use
and crime, generate cost savings at the local and state level and
allow statewide exchange of information between Circuit Court districts."

That report estimated that Mississippi could save about $5.4 million
dollars annually based upon merely 500 participants going into a
statewide drug court system instead of being housed in the state
Department of Corrections.

By the way, that was not a typographical error. That was $5.4 million
dollars that the taxpayers would save based upon the estimate. There
are currently more than 1,700 participants actually in the drug court
program statewide. You do the math. Drug court works.

Finally, no less authority than the President's Office of National
Drug Control Policy has said: " Drug Courts divert non-violent,
substance abusing offenders from prison and jail into treatment. By
increasing direct supervision of offenders, coordinating public
resources, and expediting case processing, drug court can help break
the cycle of criminal behavior, alcohol and drug use, and
incarceration. A decade of research indicates that drug court reduces
crime by lowering rearrest and conviction rates, improving substance
abuse treatment outcomes, and reuniting families, and also produces
measurable cost benefits."

Why the love for drug court? What makes drug court so special? To
answer that question, I will merely summarize what we expect from the
drug court participants in our district.

Once a participant has undergone appropriate screening by the drug
court coordinator, been approved and placed upon the program by the
court, they are expected to appear in court every Monday morning at
8:30. At that time, they answer for their behavior for the previous
week and speak directly to the judge.

Necessary sanctions are imposed at that time. Sanctions can include
jail time as well as community service.

Drug court participants will be randomly drug screened on average at
least two times per week. They are required to call the drug court
office between 5:00-5:30 p.m. every day to determine if they are to
appear for a drug test at 6 p.m. that evening.

If you miss a drug test, the court views it as a failed drug test,
simple as that. All participants have curfews and are subject to home
visits by the drug court probation officer. It is required, as a term
of drug court, that the participant make timely payment on their fines
and make a monthly payment of a drug court fee to fund the program.
These are not suggestions; they are requirements.

As a further requirement of drug court, the participants must complete
the drug treatment program recommended pursuant to that particular
participant's evaluation. They are required to attend mandatory
Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a backbone
of the continued success of their treatment. These meetings are logged
and signed off on by the facilitator and kept on a sheet maintained by
the participant. Lose the sheet, clean the dog pound, simple as that.

Why so stringent you may ask? It is all about responsibility. People
who fail the program are incarcerated. Ultimately, after being given
every opportunity to face their drug addiction, if a participant is,
in fact, removed from the drug court program, they will serve the
maximum sentence in the state penitentiary.

Our program is divided into four phases after any in-house treatment
with each phase requiring nine consecutive months of sobriety. Fail a
test, and it is back to the beginning. The program lasts for three
years if done perfectly. Participants can remain in the program for up
to five years.

Upon successful completion of each phase, the participant is given
additional freedoms and responsibility (i.e. fewer court dates and,
ultimately, fewer random drug screens in the final phase).

Much has been documented over the years about the successes of drug
court. Most of that publicity has focused, understandably, on the
rehabilitation of the drug addict, many of whom were thought to be
lost causes.

However, often overlooked is what may be the better question, "Why is
drug court beneficial to the citizens of Mississippi?" It benefits the
state of Mississippi because valuable resources can be used to deal
with murderers, rapists, child molesters, drug dealers, et al. rather
than punishing the taxpayer by recycling drug addicts in and out of
prison with no end in sight.

Local government benefits additionally by increased revenue from fine
payments. They also benefit from the quicker processing of cases which
relieves the financial burden placed upon the county for the housing
of inmates.

Finally, law enforcement benefits from the ability to deal with more
serious criminal matters including drug dealers rather than seeing the
same addicts again and again.

The state of Mississippi recognized the value of drug courts in its
recently completed legislative session with the passage of legislation
charging the State Drug Court Advisory Committee with developing
expansion plans for drug courts across the state.

I do not believe a statewide drug court system should be mandatory.
Drug courts should only be implemented by judges who believe in their

This legislation, however, will allow additional ways to reach out and
educate others about the benefits of drug courts. I truly believe that
once additional information is disseminated regarding the benefits of
drug court, they will be the rule and not the exception. After all,
drug court works.

Finally, I would note that drug courts can only succeed if they are
implemented correctly. That means appropriate screening of the
participants to assure they are, in fact, substance abusers and not
drug dealers or sociopaths looking for a way out of prison.

It also means consistent and firm sanctions and, of course, equally
consistent incentives when earned.

It means stepping in as a judge and sending someone to prison for a
long time if they do not abide by the rules and put the integrity of
the program at stake.

I am very fortunate to have a drug court coordinator in Craig Sheley
who believes in these principles. If not for Mr. Sheley and our drug
court staff, our program would not succeed.

I would like to thank state drug court coordinator Joey Craft and
Circuit Court Judge Mike Taylor for their thoughts and contributions
to this article. They believe in a principle - the principle that drug
court works.

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Circuit Judge Robert H. "Bobby" Chamberlin serves Mississippi's 17th
Circuit Court District, comprised of DeSoto, Panola, Tallahatchie,
Tate and Yalobusha counties. He is a former Republican state senator
from Hernando.
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