EDITORIAL: Drug court referral

An internal controversy within the Lee County Justice Court system boiled over into the Board of Supervisors’ meeting Monday, with claims by the NAACP that a mere trickle of referrals to a new misdemeanor drug court is rooted in racial bias.
We hope that’s not the case, and we hope that the supervisors, led by board President Tommie Lee Ivy, will give the situation a thorough examination and seek to work out whatever the problem or problems may be.
The misdemeanor drug court, administered by Justice Court Judge Ricky Thompson, who is African-American, provides a way for first-time offenders to go through a structured program, ending in clearing their record of the misdemeanor offense. Thompson is one of four justice court judges in Lee County. His colleagues are Sadie Holland, Pat Carr and John Hoyt Sheffield.
A similar drug court for felons operates in the Circuit Courts of the 1st Judicial District, which includes Lee and six other counties. Felony drug convictions carry stiffer penalties than misdemeanors.
The misdemeanor court in Lee County operates on a base line of $75,000 from state sources, and it keeps the revenues it generates in a special fund.
Regular fines and most other revenue paid in justice courts usually are deposited in the county general fund.
The regular revenues generated by the courts, under law are paid to the clerk of the justice court for deposit – along with money from cash bonds and other forfeit revenues from criminal cases – into the general fund of the county as provided in Section 9-11-19; and the clerk of the board, on approval by supervisors, makes disbursements and withdrawals from the general fund to pay any “reasonable and necessary” expenses.
In Lee County, following the state’s formula for population as the main salary standard, justice judges are paid $47,844.48 per year regardless of individual district revenue.
We hope the intervention of the Board of Supervisors examines the possibility of personality conflicts among the judges, the race issue as raised by the NAACP, and the overall effectiveness of the misdemeanor drug court.
None of the judges are required to make referrals of misdemeanor offenses to the drug court, which gives them individual latitude.
The justice court system obviously needs to operate as a unit.
The misdemeanor drug court is designed to take offenders through a second-chance process, and if it’s working as intended it’s reasonable to find out why more referrals aren’t being made.
If it’s not working as intended, a re-examination of the program would be fair and appropriate.

NEMS Daily Journal