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Senator offers bill to fund drug courts; now in conference

A Lincoln County lawmaker’s bill would provide “a stable sourceof funding” for drug court programs, and the legislation could alsobe an avenue to channel money for the operation of mental healthcrisis centers around the state.

Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s bill would add $10 to trafficcitations, game and fish and litter violations, other misdemeanorsand felonies to help fund drug courts. In the House, though,representatives amended the bill instead to add $15 to citationsand misdemeanors for crisis center funding, and $75 to impliedconsent law violations and felonies for the drug courts.

“It’s headed to conference,” Hyde-Smith said after senatorsTuesday declined to concur with the House changes.

Hyde-Smith, who has been asked to be a conferee on the bill,said she was not totally opposed to the changes.

“Because I support mental health crisis centers and thinkthere’s a real need, we’re going to try to work out something inconference,” the senator said.

Lawmakers last year approved drug courts for the state, butthere was no funding attached to the authorization.

Fourteenth District Circuit Court Judge Keith Starrett, whofounded the first drug court for Lincoln, Pike and Walthallcounties several years ago, has been lobbying for passage ofHyde-Smith’s bill. He also acknowledged the the importance of thecrisis centers, one of which is scheduled to be built inBrookhaven.

“They need to be funded, but drug courts do, too,” Starrettsaid.

By the end of the year, Starrett said 18 drug courts areexpected to be in operation in the state. He was hopeful that afair division of the added revenue could be reached inconference.

“If it could be split, I feel like it would be adequate for bothgroups,” Starrett said.

Hyde-Smith indicated that attaching the $75 assessment onfelonies could make drug court money harder to collect. When peopleare sent to prison, she said, fines are not always paid.

“I want it to be something you can predict and be able to put abudget together,” Hyde-Smith said about anticipating drug courtfunding.

Starrett said drug courts are now funded through a “patchwork”of methods. Funding can come from counties, casinos by donations,grants, regional non-profit foundations and other sources.

“The judges have been charged with going out and finding thefunding for their individual programs,” Starrett said.

With the added funding, Starrett expected drug court would stillcharge a fee for participation. The additional revenue fromcitations and fines, though, would provide a stable source offunding for judges to plan their programs.

“It would be able to reasonably fund the drug courts that areanticipated,” Starrett said.

Citing national statistics, Starrett said there is a $10cost-savings for every $1 spent on drug courts.

“Our figures verify that,” Starrett said. “National statisticsand regional statistics all verify those are good numbers.”

Regarding funding for the crisis centers, Speaker of the HouseBilly McCoy has proposed a nine-cent increase in the state’scigarette tax for the interim treatment facilities. Revenue fromthe tax would allow the centers to operate at half capacity.

However, Gov. Haley Barbour has said he will veto the cigarettetax bill if it reaches his desk.

Hyde-Smith and Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett offered differingopinions of the cigarette tax’s chances.

“I don’t think it will see the light of day,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Barnett said he expects the House to approve the cigarette taxhike. He also said the House could override a veto, and that hewould support such as move.

The crisis centers would serve as small hospitals to treatpeople in need of psychiatric help but who cannot receive itbecause of limited space at other state facilities.

“We’re holding people in jails waiting for places at Whitfield,”Barnett said.

Crisis centers have been built in Batesville, Cleveland,Corinth, Grenada and Laurel, but because of a lack of operatingfunds, the Corinth facility is the only one that has opened. Theconstruction for the Brookhaven facility was awarded earlier thismonth.

Barnett said he supported Hyde-Smith’s bill 100 percent.

“I’m certainly supportive of drug courts, and I hope thegovernor will not veto anything to fund the crisis centers,”Barnett said.

Starrett complimented Hyde-Smith and Barnett on their efforts insupport of drug courts. The judge was keeping a close eye on thefunding’s bill progress.

“Lots of people have an interest in that bill,” Starrettsaid.

Hyde-Smith was optimistic that a compromise can be reachedthrough the conference process.

“I think we’re going to work something out,” she said. “I justdon’t want to lose our drug court bill.”