Drug Courts Celebrate 20 Years

By: Judge Robert Helfrich, 12th Circuit Court District

Twenty years ago the first drug court was formed in Miami, Florida. In 1994, there were 12 drug courts in this country. The first drug court in Mississippi was formed ten years ago by Judge Keith Starrett in the Fourteenth Circuit Court District. Today there are more than 2,300 drug courts in the nation including 28 in Mississippi.

The Problem
The prison population in this country has spiraled from 200,000 in 1970 to more than 2,000,000 in 2003. Today this nation spends more than $60 billion on corrections. As a former public defender, assistant district attorney and current circuit judge, I have seen, first hand, the revolving door and failures of our criminal justice system.

Eighty to ninety percent of felony offenders are drug or alcohol involved at the time ofthe offense. Nearly 50 percent of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted. Every year in the United States there are approximately 1.2 million drug abusing offenders sent to prison that pose little threat to public safety. One in 38 individuals in Mississippi is under correctional supervision second only to Louisiana. The budget for the Mississippi Department of Corrections was $348.1 million for fiscal year 2008.

The Solution
Drug Courts offer nonviolent offenders treatment and rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Most programs are two to three years in length in which the participants must complete treatment, obtain a GED, be employed, support their dependents and pay their fines and fees. In our drug court, participants must attend at least 90 self help meetings in 90 days, complete whatever treatment as prescribed for them, submit to random drug tests at least twice a week and meet in court on a weekly basis.

When an addict is sent to prison and eventually released, they still have the addictive behaviors. Addiction is a generational disease. By breaking the cycle, drug courts allow parents to stay home and care for their families allowing them to be role models for their children and thus breaking the cycle of addiction.

It has long been said that in order to recover, an individual must hit his or her bottom. Drug courts have the unique ability (through periods of incarceration) to bring the bottom to the individual. We have the means to ensure that a participant not only begins but completes treatment.
The recidivism rate among drug offenders in the United States is 60 to 80 percent compared to the national recidivism rate of 16 percent for drug court graduates. In Mississippi, we spend $14,000 - $17,000 to incarcerate someone for one year verses the approximate $1,500 per year to keep someone in drug court.

We started our drug court in the Twelfth Circuit Court District in October 2003. To date, we have 16 drug free babies. The bottom line is that drug courts save more than money, drug courts save lives. Drug courts work!

Editor’s note: For more about Drug Court in the 12th Circuit Court District, visit http://www.12thcircuitcourtms.com/dcourt.html. For a complete list of drug court programs in Mississippi, visit http://www.mssc.state.ms.us/trialcourts/drugcourt/drugcourt_msprograms.pdf.