Thursday, May 7, 2009
Drug court works
By SUE WATSON
It has been a year since the Third District Circuit Court enrolled its first participant in drug court - a rehab program for adult addicts and alcoholics who are non-violent offenders.
The court, to date, has 74 participants with 19, or about 25 percent of them, from Marshall County, according to Judge Andrew Howorth, who worked hard to get the program in the Third Judicial District. Twenty adult drug court programs are in operation statewide, he said.
The court helps the addict/alcoholic offender to recover in lieu of going to jail and it saves the tax payers millions of dollars a year by keeping the offender out of jail, he said.
“I love talking about drug court,” he said, at the beginning of the interview. “It’s important to me to get out the word on drug court and our mission. This is not a treatment program for the public - it’s a treatment program for folks charged with a felony crime that they plead guilty to.”
The Third Circuit Drug Court was approved and funded as of January 1, 2008, but staff had to be hired and trained before the court could accept enrollees.
“Everybody on staff and law enforcement and the prosecutors and public defender - we all went to national training in New Orleans for one week last year to learn how to operate the drug court model and to give us an understanding of addiction,” Howorth said.
Drug court currently is funded completely by the state of Mississippi with funds generated for the program from a fee assessed on all state court filings. The State of Mississippi’s Administrative Office of the Court (AOC) provides all the money for the program. AOC pays the operating expenses of this court, which includes salaries of two staff members. Mississippi Department of Corrections has loaned the court a probation officer who serves as a third staffer, the judge said.
“We are saving the taxpayers money, ultimately,” he said.
The program requires a minimum participation time of three years but clients can take up to five years maximum to complete the program.
“If you haven’t finished in five years you are going to get kicked out,” said Howorth.
Kicked out means going straight to jail to serve the rest of the sentence.
Howorth said drugs are a strong lure for the offender, who in some cases will accept two years jail time in order to go back to using.
How the program works
Drug court does not accept clients who have in the past or present committed a crime of violence. Neither does the court accept a client who has been charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell or distribute or those who are also charged with burglary of a dwelling, past or present.
Many users who “take a commission off a sale”, that is they purchase a quantity for someone else, then use some of it themselves, make good candidates for drug court, Howorth said.
“Once we identify them, we can take them if the prosecutor will reduce the charge,” said the judge.
“Our crack addicts are getting good recovery rates,” he said.
Rule one is that no one is ordered to drug court unless he or she requests it, Howorth said. If the drug court prospect meets certain criteria for entry into the program, then he or she can only get in if the judge signs a court order.
A potential candidate for drug court is first referred to the program and is first screened by a non-court related treatment provider to assess whether the candidate is truly an addict or alcoholic.
“If the assessment says yes, we can offer drug court to to the prospect if he qualifies,” he said.
If the prospect meets the criteria for drug court, then he enters Phase I of the drug court program. The drug court participant has a treatment plan tailored specifically for his or her own need and once the plan is complete, the participant advances to Phase II of the program. This and each subsequent phase (Phase II-V) requires a minimum of nine months to complete.
In Phase II, the client becomes an inpatient or an outpatient at a drug rehabilitation facility and attends Addicts Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous a required number of times a week.
While the offender is in Phase I or Phase II, he or she is required to appear every Thursday at drug court to meet with the judge.
“Part of the model is they have to see the person in charge,” Howorth said.
That person is usually Howorth, but can be a staffer if the judge is away at other duties.
Also in Phase II, the participant is drug tested at random during the week and on Thursday (court day).
“They have to call daily to see if they are to be randomly tested that day. If so, they have to be there within one hour,” Howorth said.
The requirement that the participant call in helps the addict to gradually take responsibility for his or her own recovery, he said.
If the participant advances to Phase III, he or she meet at drug court only twice a month and are still subjected to random testing. In Phase IV and V, the participant does not have to come to court, but continues AA or NA making at least two meetings a week. Random screening continues.
Howorth said as a clients move to Phase IV and V, they are weaned off court supervision.
“So they learn to be independent of drug court,” he said. “If they don’t handle weaning well and they come up “hot” (a positive drug test), they get demoted and are back to more scrupulous supervision.”
In short, the drug court program is built on a system of rewards for responsible behavior and sanctions for irresponsible behavior.
A positive drug screen triggers an immediate 48 hours in jail. A second hot screening sends the addict to jail for a week. A third positive drug screening lands the participant in a state penitentiary facility for alcoholics and addicts for 30 days.
If the client continues to be noncompliant, they are sent to prison to serve their sentence.
There are only two ways out, Howorth said.
“Out the back door to the squad car and to the pen or out the front door as a graduate to be somebody who is going to lead a clean and sober life,” Howorth said. “That’s what I tell them.”
In north Mississippi, the drug court in Oxford, one in Prentiss County, and one in DeSoto County which also serves the Panola County area, are the areas that have drug court programs.
Howorth envisions in three years that the drug court in the Third Judicial District will operate at capacity with 200 clients in various phases of the program.
“We will be operating at capacity once we graduate our first person,” he said. “We hope to have 60 to 80 from Marshall County.”
Besides lives saved and restored to harmony, how much is drug court saving the state of Mississippi and the tax payer?
Howorth said, “If we assume that at full tilt we have 200 participants and 50 percent recover, drug court in Oxford could save the state a minimum of $3 million a year in incarceration costs. In three years we could conservatively save the tax payer $3 million.”
Part of the requirements of drug court are that the participant must pay their own way and they must be employed. If they are ordered to jail for a slip, the inmate pays the county jail $45 a day. The addict also must pay a drug court fee of $50 a month and pay a minimum of $50 a month on any fees owed due to underlying court charges.
Paying for treatment is where the family comes in, Howorth said. Some providers work with the court to provide rehab treatment services below the cost of service, he said, when the client has insufficient means to pay for treatment.
Circuit court clerk Lucy Carpenter fully supports the drug court program and said she hopes the churches will take initiative to help clients get to drug court. Often transportation to Oxford can be a problem for folks in Marshall County, she said.
“Churches could provide a van for transportation to drug court,” she said.
She favors the positive outcomes for both the addict and the family and friends of the addict.
Carpenter praised Howorth for taking the initiative to make the drug court available to the Third Judicial District.
“It’s his baby,” she said, affectionately.
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