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Chief Justice wants drug court program expanded statewide

MAGNOLIA — Congratulating more than 35 drug court graduatesMonday, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Ed Pittman said hewill recommend that lawmakers adopt the program statewide nextyear.

Pittman said the state is quick to spend money on “brick andmortar” building projects, but less inclined to spend money onpeople. He said drug court is a good program that can havestatewide benefits.

“We want to help other people,” Pittman said.

Monday’s graduation service was the fifth since Judge KeithStarrett started drug court in the 14th Circuit Court District in1999. Starrett’s program was the first in the state and has sincebeen implemented in several coast counties and in Hinds County.

“It is no longer the only drug court program in the state, but Ican assure you it is the best,” Pittman said of Starrett’sprogram.

Pittman suggested a regional approach to drug courtimplementation.

Speaking after the service, Pittman said he hoped to be able tooperate it with 10 to 12 judges for the state’s 82 counties. Interms of cost, the chief justice estimated a “high dollar” total of$2 million while “bare bones” implementation could be around $1.5million.

“We don’t have to build a heavy bureaucracy to support drugcourt,” Pittman said.

The program would have to have judges dedicated to drug courtsuccess, Pittman said. He said Starrett spends approximately 25-30percent of his time with drug court and likened the judge’s role tothat of a mentor.

“It’s a face-to-face operation. It’s a hands-on operation,”Pittman said.

Pittman said a number of judges don’t have the time or thedesire to make drug court successful. He indicated that havingregional judges specifically for drug court would increase theprogram’s chances for success.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett introduced a bill last year toimplement drug courts statewide. However, the bill died incommittee.

Barnett said Monday he will introduce the bill again in the 2003legislative session. He speculated that some of the drug courtparticipants would be dead without the program.

“It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of lives,” Barnettsaid. “We’re saving lives.”

Drug court is a four-phase program that begins with intensivedrug treatment and weekly meetings with Starrett. Drug testing andmeeting requirements are lowered as participants, who must berecommended for the program by law enforcement and the DistrictAttorney’s Office, move through the various phases.

At Monday’s service, 23 graduates moved into phase three while16 others entered phase four. Starrett said the graduates could nothave succeeded without the help of families, employers and othersin the support network.

“They’re going to great places. They’re going to reach greatheights,” Starrett said of the graduates.

Phase three requires monthly meetings with Starrett andtwice-monthly drug testing. Phase four is non-reporting, butcharges are still pending against participants if they make amistake.

Monday’s service included a string of testimonials fromparticipants and family members praising Starrett and theprogram.

“This is the best birthday present I received today,” said BarryHarrell, of McComb, as he held up his graduation certificate.

The professional truck driver, who turned 39 Monday, said he hadbeen addicted cocaine and alcohol. Harrell said the programrequires lot of hard work and dedication.

Brookhaven’s Jan Kincade, who moved into phase four Monday, wasthankful for the program. Kincade, who had a problem withprescription drugs, said she had to learn she could not do thingsher way, but she was glad for the second chance the programoffered.

“It was a really tough program, but it was excellent,” Kincadesaid.

Pittman said other participants’ comments will be used,anonymously, in the effort to implement drug court statewide.

“What you’ve said is going to help get drug courts in othercounties,” Pittman told graduates.