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Columbus Drug Court changing lives

 

Neal Wagner

 

Although it is still "getting off the ground," the Columbus Drug Court has been making a significant positive impact in the lives of several area drug offenders, according to court officials.  

 

The drug court, aimed at rehabilitating low-level and first-time felony drug offenders, has been in operation in the city for nearly eight months, and has been "pretty successful" since its Oct. 2008 inception, said Court Coordinator Angela Verdell. 

 

"I really do think it has been successful here, especially when compared to other drug court programs in other similar-size cities," said Verdell. "We have about 10 people participating in the program right now, but none have actually completed the program yet." 

 

"We are doing a lot of trial-and-error type stuff right now because the program is still in its infancy," said Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John. "Overall, I think it''s been very successful, and I think it will be able to process more and more people as time goes on." 

 

Candidates for drug court are referred to the program by their arresting officers or attorneys, or are selected by drug court officials from cases being processed in the Columbus Municipal Court. 

 

"Candidates for the drug court are first-time drug possession offenders who do not have a history of violent crimes. However, we review cases and make selections one case at a time," said Drug Court Case Manager Crystal Osborn. "We also consider DUI offenders who have less than three convictions." 

 

In addition to violent offenders and repeat drunken-driving offenders, drug court officials also do not consider anyone charged with drug sale or distribution, Osborn explained. 

 

After a candidate is selected for drug court, their case is reviewed by court officials and Drug Court Judge Curtis Austin before the offender is sentenced to an "intense supervision" program. 

 

Although offenders are sentenced individually based on the nature of their crimes, most in the program are required to submit to random drug tests, attend support group meetings and regularly check in with a probation officer. All treatment is funded by the offenders. 

 

"If the offenders do not have a high school education, they are usually required to attend adult education classes before they finish the program," said Verdell. "They are definitely very closely monitored while they are in the program." 

 

If an offender fails to obey the conditions of their sentence, court officials either impose greater sanctions against them or return them to the regular court system, said Verdell. 

 

"If they receive a certain amount of sanctions, they get placed back into the normal court system," said Verdell, noting sanctions may require offenders to report more frequently to probation officers or attend more meetings. "We have had to impose some sanctions on some people, but it actually hasn''t been too much of a problem so far. 

 

"It really is an effective alternative to incarceration for rehabilitating drug and alcohol offenders," Verdell added. "We haven''t really had a chance to see firsthand how successful the program is in the long run because nobody has had time to complete the program yet. I think it has had a very big positive impact so far, though." 

 

The drug court also has a system of incentives in place for those who exhibit "extraordinary conduct" in the program. 

 

"They may be subject to less screenings over a certain amount of time or receive a small gift card to somewhere in the city or something like that," said Verdell. "It''s nothing big, but it''s a way to reward extraordinary conduct." 

 

Because the drug court is operating on state grant money and is stationed in office space donated by the Columbus Police Department, the court uses no taxpayer funds. 

 

"Right now, we are operating on grant money given to us by the Mississippi Supreme Court. There are also a few other grants that we will be able to apply for once more people start going through the program," said Verdell. "We also operate off in-kind donations and just donations in general." 

 

Although drug court officials actively seek candidates for the program, many offenders are unaware drug court is available, Verdell explained. 

 

"We are about to launch a big publicity blitz to let people know that drug court is here and it is an option to going through the regular court system for some people," Verdell said. "A lot of people don''t even know about it. We want to change that because we believe this program can really help to rehabilitate some people before they become too involved in that lifestyle." 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment george commented at 5/24/2009 9:38:00 AM:

this is a great program but not only do the offenders have to pay the regular fines it also goes on their record, even though it's a misdemeaner,therefore causing a job background check to cause the individual either to lose their job or not be able to get one. my son is one of these individuals. he has made one mistake and besides paying off the fines and his po and doing what he's supposed to do. it's still going to be on a background check for 5 years. for a misdemeaner? come on. let the first that has no sin throw the first stone!

 

Article Comment L.E.O. commented at 5/24/2009 2:37:00 PM:

i'd have to agree. if it stays on your record, what's the point in going through the program. he could have just payed his fine in regular court and gone about his business. that definitely needs to be part of the disposition otherwise there is no real incentive for going to drug court

 

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