By Jeremy Pittari, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
On Friday, 24 people graduated from the 15th Judicial District Drug Court, a program that allows people facing a drug conviction to get their lives back in order.
Circuit Court Judge Prentiss Harrell has been instrumental in implementing the Drug Court program in his district, which covers the counties of Lamar, Pearl River, Jefferson Davis, Lawrence and Marion. The program helps drug offenders work towards bettering themselves and their future.
Harrell said most of the Drug Court graduates will get a clean start since their records will be expunged of a felony conviction. Also as part of the program, participants are encouraged to get their GED, hold down a regular job and be a productive member of society.
Drug Court programs began in Mississippi after US District Judge Keith Starrett attended a convention in Louisiana where the program was in full swing. At that time, Starrett, who addressed Friday’s graduation ceremony, was a Circuit Court Judge in Pike county. He told the audience about how, during that visit ,he mentioned to a Louisiana judge how frustrated he was that he could not help the people who came through his court overcome their addictions. The Louisiana judge, Bill Hunter, suggested to Starrett that he should implement a Drug Court program. Starrett said he did and found the program to be a great success.
Starrett said the Mississipopi program costs about $6 million to run, and is funded from court fees assessed to offenders. He did not make clear if that figure was for one year of operation or what it has cost since the program’s inception in 2007. That $6 million is much less than what the state would have spent to incarcerate the defenders, about $33 million that comes from taxpayers, he said.
In addition, of the participants who graduate from Drug Court only about 25 percent return to the court system, a stark contrast from the 75 percent recidivist rate for offenders who did not participate in the program, Starrett said.
Harrell said the program involves each participant writing a three- to five-page paper on how a felony conviction would affect their lives, and each undergoes a weekly drug screening. Of those who start the program, about 15 percent don’t complete it, Harrell said. There are repercussions for violations of the program, such as jail time and community service, he said.
Drug Court is not an easy way out of a felony conviction. Starrett said he has seen people choose to do their time in prison instead of completing the three-year program. For those who stick it out, they leave the program with a clean slate and a knowledge of how to end their addictions, Starrett said.
Friday’s graduation event featured guest speaker, Deanna Favre, the wife of NFL football star quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre. She shared her story of the adversities she faced, which have been published in her book “Don’t Bet Against Me”. Harrell said he plans to have all of his Drug Court participants read her book as part of the program.
Deanna Favre spoke to the crowd and graduates about how her life began from humble beginnings, and how deaths in her and Brett’s families shaped their lives. Deanna Favre also was diagnosed and survived a bout with cancer.
“People forget we’re really just normal people,” Deanna Favre said.
Some of the graduates also stepped forward to share their personal fights with addiction and how Drug Court has helped them move past their addictions.
Kristy Barrett said prior to becoming part of the program she was married with a disabled son. She and her late husband chose to deal with the hardships of raising a disabled child through the use of drugs and alcohol. Eventually, the abuse took her husband’s life. She lost custody of her child in the aftermath of her husband’s death and lived under bridges. Through the Drug Court program she now has a job and has started classes at the University of Southern Mississippi, she said. She also plans to get married soon.
“We’re going to go through things in life, but it’s up to you how you’re going to deal with it,” Barrett said.
Harrell said there are still 205 people going through the program.