State drug courts

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph is on a campaign to secure more funding for the state’s drug courts, which he says have shown outstanding success in addressing one of society’s most vexing problems.

Randolph has spoken to Rotary Clubs throughout the state, including a visit to Columbia this week, about drug courts and his upcoming request to the Legislature for additional funding.

Randolph walked through the state’s history of trying to fight the drug problem, saying in the early years it was easy for prosecutors to get a drug conviction and send the person to the state Penitentiary at Parchman. As that didn’t work, the state doubled down and started sending people guilty of drug-based offenses to prison for twice as long. But that began costing too much and wasn’t redeeming the people addicted to drugs, Randolph said.

So some 20 years ago Keith Starrett, then a circuit judge in the McComb area and later a federal judge, started the state’s first drug court. That system keeps people addicted to drugs out of jail, while using a system of rewards and punishments to keep them clean. Randolph said they must stay sober for three to five years and attend weekly meetings with a judge. Usually they pay a participant fee of about $75 per month, which gives them some skin in the game.

Randolph calls it the most effective program of his lifetime. He says 5,475 people have graduated from the state’s drug courts over the past five years, which he says has saved taxpayers $457 million that it would have cost to house those people in prison. The graduation rate of drug court is about 50 percent, which Randolph says compares favorably to the success rate of private drug treatment programs.

Everyone should agree by this point that the “lock ‘em up” approach to the drug war hasn’t worked well. Drug courts have proven more effective and aren’t as expensive.

Randolph says for $2 million more the state could start 19 pilot programs that would include three new drug courts plus extending the same idea to help treat other societal problems, including mental health and veterans issues.

The chief justice clearly has a passion for this issue, and he’s putting a lot of effort into a grassroots campaign to boost drug courts. He makes a good case that it’s a smart use of the state’s resources. Better to invest $2 million in drug courts now and actually change some lives than pay far more than that in the long run keeping addicts behind bars.