Can courts help solve drug problem?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 16, 2003

McCOMB &045; Billy Quarles began using crack cocaine in 1989 and spent the next 10 years of his life feeding his addiction.

For Quarles, a 37-year-old Brookhaven resident, those were his darkest days.

&uot;I remember my family was hiding their money from me. When I was on drugs, I was ashamed to look at them. I had to hold my head down,&uot; Quarles said.

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Four years ago, Quarles was arrested for possessing crack, and he was given another choice to make. He was offered the chance to be one of the first participants assigned to a new drug court in Judge Keith Starrett’s 14th Circuit Court, which includes Pike, Walthall and Lincoln counties.

&uot;They asked me if I had a drug problem, and if I needed help. I was relieved because I had been trying to quit for years, but I couldn’t do it by myself,&uot; Quarles said.

During the past four years, Quarles advanced through a stringent program of treatment and close supervision that he credits with saving his life.

&uot;It gave me my self-respect back. Now my family trusts me again, and I’m proud of myself when I go to see the judge. I would either be dead or in jail now without drug court,&uot; he said.

Quarles is now a house supervisor at a treatment center for drug court participants on weekends and attends GED classes and support meetings during the week.

&uot;I make a plan every day and stick to my routine. I got away from the people I used to hang around with, and I go to church every Sunday now,&uot; he said.

Quarles’ situation is all too common, according to those who deal with drug cases on a regular basis.

Adams County Sheriff Tommy Ferrell said last year he believes more than 90 percent of crime is drug-related.

Sixth Circuit Judge Forrest &uot;Al&uot; Johnson estimated this month that easily two-thirds of the cases he hears are related in some way to drug or alcohol use.

A different way

Facing an endless litany of drug crimes and incarcerations, many are now looking for more effective and affordable ways to treat drug addiction.

Last month, State Auditor Phil Bryant recommended that drug courts be established throughout Mississippi’s circuit court system, and bills are currently pending in the Legislature to address the issue.

For Bryant &045; who worked in narcotics enforcement as a deputy sheriff in Hinds County during the 1970s &045; the benefits are clear. &uot;It’s not only a better return on your money, but it’s the human side of it, too. Once you put drug users in prison, it dehumanizes them. You end up with a finished criminal,&uot; said Bryant, adding that jailing a drug addict often causes an economic domino effect.

&uot;We need ways to let these people continue to work and support their families. If you send them to jail, the state usually has to support the family with welfare,&uot; he said.

According to Bryant’s audit, housing a person in the state’s prison system costs $16,757 a year. Compare that with $5,000, the annual cost of treatment for a participant in Starrett’s drug cost.

Based on those figures, Bryant said taxpayers will save $5.4 million dollars on the first 500 participants in a statewide drug court system.

And Bryant said funding from federal sources is available.

&uot;The funding is out there &045; we’ve been told by no less than the director of the (Drug Enforcement Administration), Asa Hutchinson. And in his State of the Union speech, the president said more funding will be made available for drug treatment programs.&uot;

Since 1989, more than 1,200 drug courts have been established in America’s judicial systems, with about 50 percent of more than 300,000 participants completing the program.

&uot;We’re looking at success rates as high as 70 percent in some areas,&uot; said Bryant, adding that drug court participants get closer supervision than regular probationers.

&uot;This is not a hug-a-thug program,&uot; said Bryant. &uot;These people have to submit to frequent drug-testing and counseling, rather than just seeing a probation officer once a month.&uot;

Overcoming the &uot;soft on crime&uot; perception may be the biggest obstacles for proponents of drug courts. And that challenge was no different for Starrett when he started his program in 1999.

&uot;At first, they (police) were skeptical, but the proof is in the pudding. They see people they have been arresting year after year staying clean and sober. The Bureau of Narcotics strongly supports this program. It took them awhile, but now they see the results,&uot; Starrett said.

How it works

Starrett’s drug court involves four phases, each requiring various levels of treatment for substance abusers while assuring strict court supervision and swift consequences for those who fail.

Participants are recommended for the program by the District Attorney’s office, and only non-violent offenders with a history of substance abuse are eligible for assignment.

&uot;The police and the District Attorney have veto power to make sure no one gets into the program that does not belong there,&uot; Starrett said. He also said defendants charged with selling drugs or with residential burglaries are not eligible.

And Starrett said the program yields immediate help for the courts.

&uot;It gets the cases through quickly. They have pleaded guilty and are into treatment and off the streets within seven days of their arrests,&uot; said Starrett, who handles a full docket of civil and criminal cases in addition to drug court.

Starrett said drug court also benefits society.

&uot;A drug addict will commit 50 felonies per year. If you get them off the streets and into treatment, you’ve done some good,&uot; he said.

The 14th Circuit Court also emphasizes substance abuse treatment for those convicted of felony driving under the influence charges.

&uot;We have a special DUI court for felony DUI offenders &045; third offense and above. It’s a division of drug court,&uot; Starrett said.

Participants in that court undergo daily drug therapy to relieve their cravings for alcohol.

&uot;About half of house arrests on DUI don’t make it &045; they relapse. But we’ve had 100 percent success in our felony DUI court,&uot; Starrett said.

In his audit, Bryant relied heavily on research conducted by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

He suggests that association’s 10 key components of drug courts as a criterion for standardizing a statewide system.

Those components include early identification of eligible participants, ongoing judicial interaction with those participants and the forging of partnerships with state agencies and community-based organizations.

The ability to charge participants a fee for the program is a detail Bryant said needs to be addressed by legislation.

&uot;The participation fee is a vital part of cost control,&uot; Bryant said.

Starrett charges a $50 monthly participation fee from his participants, and most have no problem paying it.

&uot;It was kind of hard at first, paying that and my fine, too,&uot; Quarles said. &uot;But I feel like most people can do it, and it’s well worth it.&uot;

Bryant said a statewide program will need an oversight committee, and he recommends that the Administrative Office of the Courts provide that guidance.

Starrett agrees that supervision will be necessary, but he favors an advisory committee to monitor the operation of a statewide system.

Starrett also said a statewide drug court system should utilize existing judges and resources.

&uot;You need to have a judge that is already well-connected, who can bring in the community to help,&uot; Starrett said.

He refers his drug court defendants to Newhaven Recovery Center in Brookhaven for both inpatient and outpatient treatment.

&uot;The biggest thing people will have to guard against in the beginning is setting themselves up for failure. You’re going to have some people that relapse,&uot; Starrett said.

By the numbers

Starrett said 126 of 165, or 76 percent, of the participants are currently working through his drug court. Another 40 participants have been terminated and sent to jail for failed drug tests or other deficiencies.

&uot;Most of those who bust out of the program do so very quickly. We know if they are going to get with the program in the first couple of months,&uot; Starrett said.

And, as of last October, the 14th Circuit Court had collected more than $85,000 in fines from drug court participants.

Attempts to get help for defendants struggling with drug or alcohol problems have been ongoing for several years, Johnson said.

For Johnson, that has often meant using sentencing alternatives such as split sentences &045; prison time plus post-release supervision &045; house arrest, adult offender &uot;boot camps&uot; and restitution centers that combine work crew duty and barracks-type housing.

&uot;On post-release supervision, I sometimes make a requirement that, at their own expense, they attend support groups meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous,&uot; he said. &uot;I always try to do what I can.&uot;

But Johnson supports having a uniform, statewide system of drug courts &045; and cites Starrett’s drug court as a successful example of such a program. A statewide system could attract more federal grants to fund drug courts, he noted.

&uot;And some (offenders) appear to be turning their lives around&uot; as a result of such programs, Johnson said, adding that the cost of such programs could be cheaper than the cost of imprisonment.

Turning it all around

Turning their lives around isn’t easy, but it is happening, said drug court participants.

For the men and women in the program, facing their addictions and coping with sobriety is a daily priority.

&uot;With this disease, you will have people that relapse,&uot; said 39-year-old Greg Harrell.

A father of two, Harrell was arrested for DUI and possession of marijuana and methamphetamines in 1999.

&uot;I used to drink a lot &045; that’s where my disease started. My family has a history of drinking,&uot; said Harrell, who initially resisted his assignment to drug court and the treatment it offered.

&uot;At first, I just wanted to keep partying. But after you’ve been in there for awhile, you learn how to deal with life without using,&uot; Harrell said.

The self-employed sheetrock finisher is currently in Phase III of the program, reporting to Starrett on a monthly basis and submitting to random drug testing.

Two other drug court participants, Dorothy Crawford, 33, and Mark Cave, 25, work for Harrell, installing and finishing sheetrock in a McComb office building.

Crawford was arrested in 2000 for grand larceny &045; a crime she attributes to her methamphetamine addiction. She received a five-year sentence and was placed in drug court, where she soon failed a drug test.

&uot;They sent me to outpatient treatment, but I didn’t take it seriously &045; I thought I was getting away with something,&uot; Crawford said.

In drug court, participants who report their relapses to Starrett are dealt with more leniently than those who test positive for drug use.

Starrett sent the 33-year-old mother of two girls and three boys to the state’s Regimented Inmate Disciplinary program for six months.

Now back in Phase II of drug court, Crawford is staying clean.

&uot;I wouldn’t trade my life now for anything. We moved to McComb, and that’s so much better. You can’t stay around the same people you were using with,&uot; she said.

Crawford looks forward to paying her fine off with her tax refund and advancing through the program.

Cave, also in Phase II following a forgery arrest related to his substance abuse, recognizes the imperative nature of the program.

&uot;Judge Starrett said there are only two ways to get out of drug court. You can either graduate or go to the penitentiary,&uot; Cave said.

D.A.: Jail isn’t the answer

Danny Smith has served as district attorney for the 14th Circuit Court for the past 18 years. In that time, he has seen the failure of incarcerating drug addicts who commit minor offenses.

&uot;We know from experience that the penitentiary does not solve the problem,&uot; said Smith. &uot;If we can put them in treatment with long-term supervision, then we can help them.&uot;

Smith said drug court is not appropriate for drug dealers or violent criminals, and should not be used for plea bargaining purposes.

&uot;It is appropriate for individuals who have gotten caught up in their addictions and committed petty crimes,&uot; Smith said. &uot;If they mess up, the judge can send them to the penitentiary immediately.&uot;

Smith said the community within the 14th Circuit Court district has become educated about drug court and responded well to the program.

&uot;Judge Starrett has staked his reputation and career on drug court, and his efforts were affirmed by an overwhelming re-election.&uot;

Smith said elected officials and community leaders will need courage to deal with the problem of drug abuse in our society.

&uot;These are desperate times that we live in, and I would rather be a part of the solution than the problem,&uot; Smith said.

City Editor Nita McCann contributed to this report.