Meridian Star

Local News

December 10, 2012

Drug court graduation a big step for participants

MERIDIAN —     It has been a three-year journey for the inaugural drug court participants in Lauderdale County. The first three graduates of the program recently accepted their certificates for staying clean and sober, and fulfilling other requirements of the program that kept them out of jail.

    Judge Veldore Young’s pride in the graduates was evident as she described the theme of the program, “All Rise.”

    That’s what is said to establish decorum in courtrooms, but it also describes what Young calls the heart of drug court:

    “Basically, it means that we lift them up so that we all can be lifted up,” Young said. “When one of us falls, all of us fall. We have to constantly help others stay up so that we all can survive. We're a big family and we treat each other like a big family here. We're very supportive."

    There are 61 people in the drug court program and Young is hopeful about each of them. There is already success to report.

    "We have babies being born clean. We have people in our program who have been reunited with their children. Their children had been taken because of their drug use,” Young said. “We have people now who are employed and are able to support their families. The families are tremendously affected."

    Among the graduates is Linda T., who has been clean for 778 days as of Thursday, her graduation day. Because of her successful participation in the program, she no longer has to serve five years in prison. When asked when it was she knew the program would work for her, she said she couldn’t pinpoint a specific time, but it helped that she had about six months of sobriety when she started the program.

    "I was into the program a little while, doing my counseling and meetings and all,” she said. “You get busy and you forget, the more you get involved. It doesn't take long to know that this is the real deal."

    Linda said Judge Young tailors each person’s program to their specific needs.

    “She takes us each individually — one on one and builds, not just like we're a bunch of criminals with drug problems,” Linda said. "She's great. I just can't say enough good things about her."

    Walter S. has had 568 days clean and no longer has to serve 16 years in prison.

    "Drug court introduced me to Narcotics Anonymous. That was the biggest part of it,” Walter said. "The first time I got a sanction. I knew then. That was my first time and my last time."

    Sanctions are given when a participant  breaks a rule. Walter has learned a lot about himself through Narcotics Anonymous, he said.

    "My addiction is only 15 percent of my problem,” Walter said. “Living life on the right terms is the other 85 percent and that's what I'm working on."

    Allan has spent 1,316 days clean and no longer has to serve 30 years in prison.

    "The first time I came into drug court and met Judge Young, she made me feel right at home in the program,” Allan said. “Also, being introduced to Narcotics Anonymous had a big impact on me, knowing that you're not the only person out there with the addiction, with the problem. There are more people who walk the same line as you do and just being able to lean on other people at times. That's when I realized I would be alright."

    This has brought him closer to his family as well, he said.

    “I'm working on a better bond with my two boys now,” Allan said. “I went to school to become an EMT. I'm going to go back to school to become a paramedic next semester."

    Allan made it clear that Judge Young runs a tight ship.

    "One way or the other she will get their attention to walk the line that they need to be on to give the program an opportunity to work for them,” Allan said.

    A vocal supporter of drug courts in Mississippi is the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., who attended the graduation on Thursday. Waller emphasized that drug courts are not easy for participants, but he said he believes they are effective and ultimately save tax dollars.

    "Drug courts are not soft on crime. Drug courts do not shelter dangerous criminals. Violent offenders, drug dealers, are not qualified. Drug court is not an easy way for someone to get out of a jail sentence,” Waller said. “Our drug courts require constant testing. They require recipients to have jobs. They require community service."

    Participants also have to pay old fines and court costs, Waller said.

    Statewide there are more than 3,000 participants in drug courts, Waller said, representing a projected $36 million in savings to the state in incarceration costs.

    For a program to succeed, Waller said, it must have close interaction between court staff, including district attorneys, public defenders and judges. It must also have the ability to conduct quick interventions by drug services, strenuous accountability, and strong participation by those in the program. Jobs for participants are also vital to the program’s success, he said.

    Early results from the program indicate that the success rate for graduates of drug courts is 70 percent, Waller said, versus 30 percent in the general prison population.

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