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Traffic ticket fee begins Thursday; funds drug courts

Beginning Thursday, motorists facing traffic citations andcitizens convicted of other misdemeanors and felonies can expect topay a few dollars more to help fund state drug courts and mentalhealth crisis centers.

In the 2004 legislative session, lawmakers approved a billsponsored by Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith to add a $20 assessmentto traffic, implied consent, litter, and game and fish lawviolations and to other misdemeanors and felonies. The new lawtakes effect July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year.

In most cases, the assessment revenue will be divided evenlybetween drug courts and mental health crisis centers. Officials areexpecting about $5 million each to be generated to meet operationalneeds of the two.

“That’s going to be an adequate source of funding for us,” saidFourteenth District Circuit Court Judge Keith Starrett, who foundedthe state’s first drug court several years ago for Lincoln, Pikeand Walthall counties.

Starrett said there are now 10 drug courts in the state and atotal of 18 are expected by the end of the year. The judge said theguidelines for how the funding will be dispersed are still beingdeveloped at the state level.

“It’s a work in progress,” Starrett said.

Also, judges wanting to set up a drug court in their districtswill have to adhere to strict guidelines. Starrett said those arealso in the making.

“It’s a well thought-out scheme to get these up and running,”Starrett said.

Starrett said he expects to receive at least $150,000 for hisdrug court. The timing of the law was especially helpful forStarrett’s program because it is no longer eligible for federalgrant help and was scheduled to run out of money at the end of theyear.

“The bottom line is we were without a funding source until thislaw was passed,” Starrett said.

Starrett said the drug court bill is a “godsend” for many peopleacross the state. When all 18 drug courts are up and going, thejudge said that would reduce the need for 1,500 beds at Parchmanand thus save the state around $30 million a year.

“Cindy Hyde-Smith deserves a lot of credit for getting this billthrough,” Starrett said.

Due to collection and processing issues, revenue from the newassessments is not expected until September. Assessment revenuefrom circuit, chancery and justice courts is settled to the stateonce a month, said David Fields, Lincoln County administrator.

“We must have 20 assessments for various things,” said Fields,who expected to have a new list soon

This month’s settlement, which represented collections in May,was $22,700, Fields said. Of that, approximately $19,000 wasgenerated through justice court.

For crisis center operations, Department of Mental Health BureauChief Roger McMurtry said the agency is anticipating its firstpayment in September.

“We’ll start spending money before then,” said McMurtry, addingthat borrowed funds will be used for staff acquisition andtraining.

McMurtry said five of six crisis centers have been completed andturned over to the department, which is targeting mid-September forcenter operation. The sixth center, in Grenada, is about 98 percentcomplete and is expected to be finished by the end of July.

Brookhaven was also chosen as a site for a mental health crisiscenter. However, its status is in doubt.

“The Brookhaven project is still on hold at this time,” McMurtrysaid.

Bids for the project were opened several months ago, but weretaken under advisement. With the opening now more than 45 days ago,officials said the project likely would have to be re-advertised ifit goes forward.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett said he hoped chancery clerks andsheriffs from southwest Mississippi counties could meet with Gov.Haley Barbour soon to discuss the crisis center situation. Heremained optimistic about the Brookhaven center becoming areality.

“It will be built,” Barnett said.

The anticipated $5 million from the new legislation assessmentwas part of about $13 million in funding approved for the crisiscenters, McMurtry said. Other revenue came from the tobacco trustfund and the budget contingency fund.

McMurtry said the funding should allow the centers to operate atabout half capacity, which would be eight patients per facility.The centers will serve as small hospitals to treat people in needof psychiatric help but who cannot receive it because of limitedspace at other state facilities.