More drug courts would help ease prison problems, judge believes

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, June 27, 2000

MAGNOLIA — With potential savings of almost $16 million,Circuit Judge Keith Starrett touted drug courts Monday as asolution to the state’s prison overcrowding problems.

MAGNOLIA — With potential savings of almost $16 million,Circuit Judge Keith Starrett touted drug courts Monday as asolution to the state’s prison overcrowding problems.

Starrett, a candidate for the state Supreme Court, saidlegislators should take a “long hard look” at implementingstatewide the drug court program he began in the 14th Circuit CourtDistrict 17 months ago.

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“They’re faced with prison crowding that’s just not manageablewith our budget,” said Starrett during a press conference followinghis weekly drug court session at the Pike County Courthouse.

Citing national prison population statistics, Starrett saidMississippi’s incarceration rate is growing faster than otherstate’s. According to Association of State CorrectionalAdministrators totals, Mississippi had a 20.98 percent prisonpopulation change since January 1999, and the next closest was theDistrict of Columbia at 11.34 percent.

“We can’t continue that,” Starrett said. “Something has got tobe done.”

Starrett’s suggestion is drug court.

To qualify for drug court, a person must be an addict, mustrequest admission to the program, cannot be a house burglar, drugdealer or violent offender, and must be approved for the program bythe district attorney’s office and the law enforcement agencyhandling the case.

Once in the program, participants must seek treatment, contacttheir probation officer regularly, make weekly court appearancesbefore the judge and be employed. Starrett said the two ways to getout of drug court are to graduate or go to the penitentiary.

“If they do good, they get to stay out of jail another week,”Starrett said.

Starrett, whose district includes Lincoln, Pike and Walthallcounties, said his district’s program has slots for 80participants. It operates on a budget of around $95,000 a year,which is funded on a 75 percent state and 25 percent local matchbasis.

Without the drug court alternative, Starrett estimated 50percent of its participants would be in prison. Costs ofincarcerating a person is $20,000 to $25,000 a year, the judgesaid.

Implementing drug courts statewide would cost an estimated $1.65million. Coincidentally, the state is currently facing a $1.8million penalty for having too many state inmates in countyjails.

“It’s pretty close,” Starrett said in pointing out thesimilarity and suggesting the fine may could be lowered iflawmakers will pursue other prison crowding alternatives.

With 40 inmates not requiring incarceration from each of thestate’s 22 circuit court districts, Starrett said the first yearsavings to the state would $15.9 million.

But the real benefits are in subsequent years, Starrettsaid.

Because of treatment aspects, defendants get help and the statewould not be faced with the “revolving door” prison situation ofthe past, Starrett said. Drug court programs are in all 50 states,and Starrett said 75 percent to 90 percent of drug court graduatesare still substance-free after two years following the program.

“Compare that with any other program and it blows them out ofthe water,” Starrett said.

Starrett began the 14th district’s drug court program in early1999. He said there were a number of participants kicked out earlyon, but most participants now are staying in the program andgetting help.

“It’s been more successful than I ever imagined,” Starrettsaid.

A Brookhaven drug court participant, who asked not to beidentified, entered the drug court after becoming addicted toprescription drugs following knee surgeries about three years ago.After being “cut off,” she said she started obtaining the drugsillegally.

“Drug court has given me a new perspective,” the woman said.

The woman said Starrett is very strict but alsocompassionate.

“He believes in what he’s doing,” she said. “He encourageseverybody.”

In the earlier drug court session, one participant escaped atrip to the penitentiary, but not without a stern warning from thejudge. The participant said he was “trying” to comply with drugcourt provisions.

“Trying is not going to get it,” Starrett said. “You’ve got todo what you’ve got to do.”

Starrett said drug court requires 100 percent compliance,including meetings with probation officers.

“There’s no quarter. There’s no room for you not to meet withyour probation officer,” Starrett told the participant.

District Attorney Dunn Lampton said he liked the drug courtprogram because of the speed with which cases can be handled. Adrug court participant can be in the program within seven days ofhis arrest.

“It saves my time and my resources,” Lampton said.

And, if a participant violates drug court provisions, he can besent straight to prison without having to go before a judge again,Lampton said.

“I think it’s a good program. I believe in it and I’m behind it100 percent,” Lampton said.