Misdemeanor drug court faces financial, political hurdles

By Robbie Ward
Daily Journal

TUPELO – Lee County Justice Court Judge Rickey Thompson faces a tough challenge if he’s to save the misdemeanor drug court he’s operated since 2009.
State funding has dried up, and the Lee County Board of Supervisors – citing an original agreement that no county funds would be used – haven’t indicated they’ll pick up the tab. Sheriff Jim Johnson and county prosecutor James Moore, meanwhile, don’t think the court has proven effective.

Thompson disagrees, but for now he’s fighting an uphill battle.

Johnson and a shackled prisoner in his office Friday may be on opposite sides of the criminal justice system, but they both have concerns with the misdemeanor level drug court.

Johnson arranged for the Daily Journal to interview the prisoner because he said the man was picked up recently on a March 4 warrant issued by Thompson that should have been canceled. The man paid the fines for the warrant on March 14, but Johnson said deputies arrested him last week since the warrant was still active.

Johnson released the man Friday after learning he’d paid his fines. The sheriff said communication problems between the misdemeanor drug court on canceled warrants continues.

“It’s a problem with Rickey Thompson letting us know the warrant’s not any good,” Johnson said.

The arrested man requested to not be identified since he may appear in Thompson’s court again.

When Thompson learned of Johnson and the prisoner’s complaints against him and the local drug court, he said he wasn’t surprised. Thompson said the prisoner’s two years as a participant were characterized by him failing drug tests required to advance in the program.

As for the old warrant, Thompson said it’s the sheriff who’s mixed up.

“The sheriff doesn’t have his records right,” Thompson said. “We put him out of drug court a long time ago.”

This situation reflects the challenges Thompson faces in keeping the misdemeanor drug court going.

The state cut out all funding in July, which the program has relied on since it began 41⁄2 years ago, forcing Thompson to seek out other funding sources. No county elected official besides Thompson publicly supports using county tax dollars to pick up where the state left off.

The Board of Supervisors supported the drug court when it opened in 2009 under the condition that no county tax dollars would be used for it. Now that annual state grants of $75,000 have dried up, which is the result of growing numbers of drug courts statewide competing for limited funding, Thompson needs political and financial support but hasn’t found it.

Estimates from the county administrator show the misdemeanor drug court operating on $25,000 to $30,000 since the state stopped funding the program.

Thompson changes the subject when asked what will happen to the 60 participants in his drug court if funding runs out. He talks about the need to help people with drug and alcohol addictions and how much the problem impacts their families and the community.

“The real issue is we’ve got people with problems,” he said recently during an interview in his office in downtown Tupelo. “We can deal with it now or deal with it later.”

Drug courts in Mississippi and nationwide have been heralded as runaway successes on the felony level. Drug “court” is really a program that works with people with drug and alcohol problems to help them avoid prison while they get their lives together by completing basic education, meeting with drug and alcohol counselors and getting a job.

On the felony level, working to turn drug-abusing criminals into contributing citizens saves tax dollars related to cost of housing and medical costs in state prison.

Another drug court in the state, youth drug court, intends to catch the next generation of drug addicts committing crimes before they get out of hand.

On the other hand, there’s misdemeanor drug court. Proponents say it helps adults with drug and alcohol problems before they commit felony crimes and face serious prison time.

A big problem for the five misdemeanor drug courts seeking state funding, such as the one in Lee County, is that finding direct monetary value to state taxpayers is tough. Misdemeanor criminal convictions usually result in fines and little jail time, usually in county jails, not state prisons.

“The misdemeanor courts are struggling,” said Joey Craft, state drug court coordinator with the state’s Administrative Office of Courts. “A circuit court can show the state hard numbers in savings related to incarceration. Misdemeanor courts don’t have that. They struggle to show their value outside of anecdotal stories.”

Lee County supervisors haven’t formally decided whether they’ll fund the small crimes drug court, but Bobby Smith, president of the board, said he’s not interested in a tax increase for any reason and reiterated the board’s position of approving the program only if county taxpayers didn’t have to contribute.

Along with state funding, Thompson’s drug court gets financial support from $50 fees participants pay each month, up to $600 a year. But the numbers aren’t adding up for Lee County prosecutor Moore, who stopped allowing new participants.

More than a third of current participants of Lee County misdemeanor drug court have participated for three years or more, significantly longer than the 12-18 months recommended by state guidelines.

Of participants in the drug court, only a third pay their monthly fees and just 7 percent of $28,500 county fines owed from original crimes committed has been collected.

“It’s hard to depend on the participants to fund it,” Moore said. “They can’t get the ones in it now to pay.”

So far this year, the misdemeanor drug court has had two people graduate, state records show.

Thompson defends participants in the drug court, saying many of them have limited resources and have trouble finding stable employment. They’ve started back on the right track, even if in the slow lane.

“If they’re not out committing new crimes, I consider that a success,” Thompson said.

Jennifer Cummings, drug court coordinator for the felony drug court in Lee County, said it’s not uncommon for participants in all drug courts to take significantly more time to complete the program than recommended. When a participant violates a requirement of the program, such as failing a drug test, the person’s time in the drug court starts over. Felony-level drug court participants are recommended to complete the program in 36-48 months but many take longer.

Another challenge for the court is additional costs. After the drug court lost state funding, Johnson decided to start charging the drug court for services such as keeping participants in jail for not complying with the program or transporting participants to different locations.

Thompson recently received a $150 invoice from the Sheriff’s Department for keeping a drug court participant for a few nights. Johnson points to the drug court judge’s agreement with the supervisors to operate the drug court at no cost to county taxpayers.

“My budget is funded through the county,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to make a promise, don’t be mad at somebody who tries to hold you to your promise.”

As the county’s top law enforcement officer, Johnson said he supports efforts to help people with drug problems but also wants to make sure he’s complying with wishes of the supervisors to not use county resources on the small crimes drug court.

Supporters of Thompson’s misdemeanor drug court, including several Lee County ministers, packed the Board of Supervisors’ meeting earlier this month, promising to return to each meeting until supervisors fund the program.

In the meantime, Thompson reduced his full-time drug court employee to part-time status and believes he can operate his court for about nine months.

Until then, he’ll wait to see if county supervisors decide to add funding for the court in the upcoming 2014 budget.

“This is a nonsense issue we’re fighting over,” he said.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com

  • barney fife

    Imagine the savings to the legal community (and the taxpayers) if the laws regarding the possession, sale and use of marijuana (only) were taken off the table.

  • Guest

    Jim Johnson has issued his opinion on the matter, so ya’ll can all go home now. Don’t need that board of supervisors or that justice court judge. The high and mighty sheriff has spoken!