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Judges: Drug courts change and save lives 

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Circuit Court Judge James Chaney says he was initially skeptical about drug court but now is a staunch advocate. (Photo by Thomas Parker)

Using a drug court to manage drug offenders instead of putting them behind bars is a more effective solution for all parties, according to several judges in Vicksburg area courts.

During the Warren County Board of Supervisors work session Monday, M. James Chaney and Toni Terrett, judges with the 9th District Circuit Court, and drug court administrator Sharonda Taylor updated the board about drug court.

The county partially finances drug court along with the State of Mississippi, and it provides a facility along with two of its employees. It also receives fees from participants at a rate of $70 per person per month, which eventually goes back into the drug court operations.

The 9th Judicial District Drug Court was started in 2004 by Chaney’s predecessor, Judge Frank Vollor.

“There was a big push from the federal level for drug and mental-health courts,” Vollor said. “Judge Keith Sterritt started the first one in the state, followed by Judge Parker in Hinds County, and we were third.”

“It was difficult to sell it to the supervisors at first. I caught a lot of flak when we bought the building on Clay Street,” Vollor added.

“There is not a city, hamlet or town in Mississippi that isn’t impacted by drugs. We should be proud that we are addressing the issue.”

Instead of sending nonviolent drug offenders to prison, lawyers or prosecutors can request they go through the drug court program. Statistically, the program is a win for both offenders and the community.

To keep a person behind bars costs $19,607 per individual per year, Chaney said, as opposed to $1,245 for drug court. Recidivism is also significantly lower: 35.9% of prisoners return to prison as opposed to 3.5% recidivism for drug court.

No violent or sex offenders are eligible for the program. “Many would rather go rather go to prison and keep using,” Chaney said. “The program is not for everyone,”

A 15-member committee made up of public defenders, law enforcement, medical professionals, and others reviews each applicant, and a background assessment is conducted before the offender is accepted into the program.

The person is then brought before the drug court judge to plead guilty to their offense. The judge sentences them into the program, setting aside the crime of conviction. If the person fails to complete the program, the judge has the discretion to re-sentence the offender for the maximum time allowed for their original crime.

Offenders first attend between 30 to 90 days of residential treatment to get clean. In many cases, they are then sent to a transitional living facility for additional treatment and counselling.

After treatment, offenders enter phase one of the drug court program, where they must submit to random drug tests several times each week. They must attend at least four Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings per week that must be documented and communicate regularly with a sponsor. Attendance at drug court proceeding once a week is also a requirement.

People in the program are required to hold a job unless they have a documented disability. Many are required to obtain a GED certificate. All must pay their fees, fines, drug court costs and regular supervision fees.

As they move through the next three phases of the program, they receive a little more latitude on these initial restrictions. When a person completes the program, their record is wiped clean.

The average time frame in the program is five years. Offenders who receive sanctions can receive additional time.

Chaney said he approached the program with some skepticism when he first took office. Now, after 11 years on the bench, he is a staunch advocate of the program.

Both Chaney and Vollor spoke with pride of restoring families and seeing people who have passed through the program becoming solid members of the community.

“It does me good to see someone who has been through the program in the grocery store, back with their family and being a productive citizen,” Chaney said.

For additional information on drug court visit the National Drug Court Institute website and read Therapeutic Jurisprudence: An Examination of Mississippi Drug Courts.

Copyright © 2021 Vicksburg Daily News.

Vicksburg Daily News