MS drug court programs facing steep cuts as of July 1

HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - It's a program that justice officials said saves both lives and taxpayers money by helping people overcome their drug and alcohol addictions instead of sending them to jail. On July 1 Mississippi's nearly 50 drug court programs are scheduled to see their funding drop dramatically.

Drug court graduations are about new beginnings. Addicts who were facing criminal charges for non-violent first offenses are offered treatment, counseling and educational opportunities. If they successfully complete the program their record is expunged.

"It has really helped people. It saved lives in terms as getting them off of the drugs," said Cono Caranna, Former District Attorney for Harrison, Hancock, and Stone Counties. "It has provided careers to people who would have otherwise lost their career because they had a conviction. It's been an all around advantage."

Harrison County Youth Court runs a program for juvenile offenders. Judge Margaret Alfonso said drug abuse among children is high in Harrison County.

"Up until late yesterday afternoon we thought we were going to have to shut down the entire program which means not only do the children lose the services but I would lose four employees," said Judge Alfonso. "We found out late yesterday that some funding has been found has been located at the state level. It is still going to result in substantial personnel and service cutbacks. We hope to be able to keep the program open at some level."

Mississippi's various types of drug court programs are facing different levels of cuts with some maybe losing state funding all together. That is unless the program's get the governor's help.

"The state really didn't slash the funding. The state ignored the funding," said Caranna. "There were several bills in the legislature this year, this past session and they could have taken care of the problem at that time. They elected not to for whatever reasons. Now there's another opportunity coming very quickly. The governor has talked about having a special session. If he puts this in the call, the legislature can take care of what they omitted taking care of during the regular session."

Judge Alfonso said the situation is sad for those needing a second chance.

"What it means is that children will not be getting the services that they need. We do not have enough resources for children charged with delinquent acts at this point in time," said Judge Alfonso. "To think that we're losing the advantage of something that has been proven not locally, statewide, but nationally to be such an effective program. It's frankly disheartening. Harrison County Youth Court."

Judge Margaret Alfonso said while the drug court programs for adults collect fees from participants, the ones for juveniles are offered for free. Therefore they would be harder hit by the cuts.

Current Stone, Harrison, Hancock County District Attorney Joel Smith said, "As a rehabilitation-based program, drug court has become our best deterrent to recidivism from first time non-violent offender. We have seen tremendous growth in the number of drug courts and participants statewide over the last few years. The program saves taxpayers millions of dollars each year in Mississippi. I am confident our legislature will find a way to make sure it has the funding to remain a long term solution to drug related crime in our state."

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