Drug court helps addicts and the community

HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Drug court has proven it works to help users break the addiction, reduce crime, save taxpayers' money and restore families. There are drug courts across the country, and 50 in Mississippi. Two of those service all South Mississippi counties.

Seventy-five percent of adult graduates never see another pair of handcuffs again. That statistic is the reason all four drug court judges at the Harrison County Courthouse participate in the program.

"It's a very strict program, very intense supervision, much more intense than regular probation," Judge Larry Bourgeois said. "However, there is a benefit to it. If they successfully complete the program, their case is non adjudicated and expunged."

Participants must go through a screening process just to qualify. And the district attorney's office, law enforcement and drug court must all agree the person would be a good candidate. To qualify for the Harrison County program, you must be a first time offender and have committed a non-violent crime related to doing drugs.

"The first thing they have to go through is rehabilitation, which usually lasts 30 to 90 days inpatient, outpatient. In phase one they have to report to the drug court once a week, phase two every other week and phase three once a month," Bourgeois said.

It takes participants anywhere from three to five years to complete the program. Currently in Harrison County there are 224 participants, 19 of which will graduate Thursday afternoon.

Judge Lisa Dodson said seeing participants go through and finish the program is very rewarding for her.

"Seeing these folks when they come before us to plead guilty and then a few months later when they have been in the program they look different, they behave differently, they begin to start regaining the trust of their families," Dodson said. "Drug court has a ripple effect, it doesn't just affect the person in drug court, it affects the family they live in, their community they live in, because folks are now productive. Their families trust them, their families are being supported."

Drug court has also proven to cut back on crime by as much as 45 percent in a community.

"What happens in drug court is we give folks the tools they need, the treatment they need. They rebuild their self esteem and they are able to go back into our community to be productive, law abiding citizens. And they don't feel the need to rob folks and to break into houses to steal things to support their habit," Dodson said.

The program has been around in Harrison County for more than ten years and the judges estimate 99-percent of participants enter voluntarily. The other one percent are sentenced to drug court.

"When you put them on regular probation or simply send them to jail, we are just hoping they get help. They are not really given the tools to function in society and drug court just makes that difference in giving them those tools," Dodson said.

"It's great to be able to put someone back into the community and live a good life," Bourgeois said, "I can tell you a story. Last time we had graduation, three mothers came up to me and said, 'You have given me my child back.' That is very rewarding."

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