By Alyssa Schnugg/The Oxford Eagle
OXFORD — The local Drug Court should see its first graduates this summer, said Circuit Court Judge Andrew Howorth, who started the drug court about two and a half years ago.
“Right now we have 208 participants in the program,” Howorth said. “We can assume one-third would be incarcerated if this program didn’t exist.”
Not having these people in jail is saving taxpayers money because it costs about $45 a day to keep someone in prison. Keeping a third of these 208 drug court participants from behind bars saves taxpayers $1,149,750 in prison costs, he said.
The drug court works on a yearly budget of $325,000, Howorth said. “That’s a savings of more than $700,000 in taxes,” he said.
The drug court is the “definition of tough love,” Howorth said.
To be a candidate for drug court, a participant must be arrested on a felony possession drug charge or other charges, such as writing bad checks or prescription fraud. The drug court doesn’t accept those charged with selling drugs into the program.
“There are criminals who are addicts, and then there are addicts who commit crimes,” he said. “We want to find a place for those people in drug court. It’s not for everybody.”
After someone is arrested and indicted on a felony drug-related crime, they are reviewed to see if their case is eligible for drug court. If they are accepted, the defendant is allowed to participate in drug court instead of going to jail. The participant is then sent to a professional drug and alcohol counselor for assessment.
“We are not professionals in addiction,” Howorth said. “We are professionals in supervision.”
Drug or alcohol treatment plans are drawn up and participants must attend drug court every Thursday to be tested for drugs and alcohol. New, state-of-the-art equipment allows the drug court to test for every illegal drug and whether the person drank any alcohol within the past five days.
Due to the sensitive testing, participants are given a list of items they are not allowed to use or eat or drink, such as poppy seeds or hand sanitizer, which could turn a test positive. If a participant tests positive often enough, he or she is kicked out of the program or reduced down a level. It takes about three years for the average participant to complete the program.
Drug court is funded by the state. Up until recently, Lafayette County officials administered those funds, but due to a dispute with the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, Union County government officials now administer the state funds used to pay for the program headquartered in Lafayette County.
Part of the funding comes from a $10 fee tacked onto moving violation tickets and misdemeanor funds.
While the drug court can accept those charged with drug- or alcohol-related crimes from any of the seven counties located within Circuit Court — Lafayette, Benton, Calhoun, Chickasaw, Marshall, Tippah and Union counties — the court is maintained in Lafayette County, but administered by Union County.
“However, the drug court will stay in Lafayette County,” Howorth said.
Howorth said the first graduation will be held sometime this summer, maybe in July, although he said he isn’t sure yet how many will graduate from the program. Subsequent graduation ceremonies will begin to be held twice a year as more participants leave the program.
For many of them, graduating the program means their original criminal charge will be dropped. Certain crimes, however, such as felony DUIs, can’t be erased from someone’s record.
“This program is not ‘Hug-A-Thug’ time,” Howorth said. “There’s nothing pretty about it. It’s a harsh, harsh thing.”
Howorth said starting the drug court is one of the greatest things he’s ever done.
“It’s not always an easy job. When I have to send these people to the penitentiary because they’ve repeatedly failed their drug tests, it’s a harsh thing. Sometimes you have to use the whip … But it’s working. We have families reunited. People back to work, paying their taxes instead of draining you and me and stealing from us.”