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Podcast: Key senator says lawmakers will study taxes, health care, other key issues in 2024

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Mississippi Today

On this day in 1867

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mississippitoday.org – Jerry Mitchell – 2024-07-15 07:00:00

JULY 15, 1867

Credit: National Park Service

Maggie Lena Walker, the first African-American and first known female bank president to charter a bank in the United States, was born in Richmond, Virginia. She championed for the impoverished and gave loans to Black Americans starting businesses. 

“Let us have a bank,” she said, “that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

She also opened a store for Black Americans, so they no longer had to use side or back entrances. In 2017, Richmond honored Walker with a statue — the first of a aimed at honoring such unsung heroes.

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

Podcast: Democratic strategist says questioning Biden’s health is understandable

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mississippitoday.org – Bobby Harrison and Taylor Vance – 2024-07-15 06:30:00

's Bobby Harrison and Taylor Vance with former Democratic House member and attorney Brandon Jones about 's , about state Supreme Court races and a litany of ongoing federal lawsuits that could impact Mississippi . Jones is the director of political campaigns for the Southern Poverty Center Action Fund.


This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Mississippi Today

Damascus Road: Drug court changing lives, saving taxpayers ‘boatload of money’

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mississippitoday.org – Geoff Pender – 2024-07-15 04:00:00

By his own analysis, Michael Fisher, 39, just a few years ago was a “dope-selling, drug-addicted failure … homeless with a needle in my arm” who'd spent about half his life in jail, on probation or on parole. He had never even gotten a driver's license or graduated high school.

After being arrested again Fisher was given a huge break — the opportunity to avoid more jail by entering Intervention Court, or “drug court.” He took it, because “it beat going to prison that day,” but he knew he wasn't going to complete the program. He did the orientation, took one drug test, then bolted, and ignored a corrections caseworker's pleas to return to the fold.

He was caught and locked up again.

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But the Intervention Court caseworker after a couple of weeks sent word that if he reached out, asked for help, she might help him.

Fisher said his choice was clear, a few months in prison or rehab and working the program. Prison would have been a “shorter ride” and he would be out on parole. But he began what he calls his “road to Damascus” and knew doing more time was a road to nowhere. “I'm begging her for help,” he said.

“I've been to prison several times — like 12 years of it,” Fisher said. “And every time I came out worse than when I went in. It's a negative , and negativity begets negativity … I had to break the cycle. I needed rehab. I needed drug court.”

On a recent day in Columbia, Fisher was one of 48 people celebrating graduation of Mississippi's 15th Circuit Court District's Intervention Court, before a crowd of hundreds of family and friends. Many, such as Fisher, gave testimonial — sobriety, families reunited, GEDs and community college degrees, and career training — new lives after three years of working the program.

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“I was wild as wild can get,” Fisher said. “I'm not that guy anymore … The Lord's direction, mixed with my own determination and drug court's expectations led me. Now, I'm a hardworking family man with goals and accomplishments. I've got a license, a GED — I never thought I'd get that. I've got a job, a vehicle, a home that I own. I'm not renting nothing, I own that. It feels good.

“It feels good.”

Circuit Judge Prentiss Harrell of the 15th District is a leading proponent of Intervention Court in Mississippi. He runs one of the most robust programs in the state, with 250 to 300 people typically enrolled. He reminded the hundreds of people in the audience that day of another benefit.

“It saves a boatload of money,” Harrell said. “I think it's one of the most successful things we've done in the criminal justice system.”

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Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today`

Mississippi, like many other states, in the early to mid 1990s took a tough-on-crime stance, with lawmakers passing tougher laws and longer mandatory sentences including for drug crimes. But within a few years, taxpayers were being hit hard by this, with Mississippi's prisons overflowing, deficits mounting and the state's incarceration rates perennially among the highest in the nation — higher per capita than China's.

“We're still No. 2 (in incarceration rates nationwide),” Harrell said. “We're a poor state. We can't afford it.”

Now-U.S. District Court Judge Keith Starrett started the state's first felony drug court in 1999 while he was serving as a state Circuit Court judge for Lincoln, Pike and Wathall counties. He had learned of a similar program in Texas. He started the program with no or statutory framework. He helped lobby lawmakers to provide money and supporting laws.

Now, there are 40 drug courts statewide, all 23 state circuit districts have a drug court, and there are now also juvenile, family, veterans and misdemeanor drug courts. Around 4,000 people now are typically enrolled in what has been called a “problem-solving court” and nearly 11,000 have graduated since its inception.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph said the state's savings from drug intervention courts in incarceration costs from 2006 through April of this year are approaching $1 billion. And over that time, participants have paid over $19 million in fines to counties and more than $24 million in court fees.

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Randolph said the courts have averaged a recidivism rate of 2.9% to the Mississippi Department of Corrections' recidivism rate of 35.4%. From 2006 through 2018, an MDOC report said, there were only 133 repeat offenders of the state's 4,439 adult felony drug court graduates.

The program is credited with the drug-free births of 951 babies — another potential savings of hundreds of millions, Randolph said, significant since a federal of Justice study found each drug-free infant saves taxpayers an average of $750,000 in the first 18 years of life.

“When I talk to the Rotary clubs and Kiwanis clubs, I tell them, look, this is the best deal in ,” Randolph said. “They pay fines and fees and money back to the counties. We're putting money back on the table, what other part of government does that? … Recidivism is low. They get into a decent job. They have to keep a job or go to Parchman. They're learning trades … Some people still think this is a hug-a-thug program — Judge Starrett had to deal with that early on — but this is working. And there are very few families out there that haven't had to deal with some kind of drug issues.”

The is appropriating about $9 million a year for intervention court, a drop in the bucket compared to the $432 million it's spending on the state corrections system this year.

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A successful drug court program is a group effort — a community effort — Judge Harrell recently explained. The graduation he oversaw in May was the result of efforts from the judiciary and prosecutors being willing to consider alternative sentencing, MDOC providing intensive supervision, the local Pearl River Community College providing education and job training, local business leaders being willing to hire the enrollees and local churches providing spiritual and emotional support and other resources.

But the lynchpin, Harrell, Randolph and others say, is someone wanting to turn their life around and being willing to work the program.

“It's not a silver bullet,” Harrell said. He told the graduation crowd that in a recent busy docket call in one of his counties, he had two former graduates back before him as offenders and “it broke my heart.”

But seeing people apply themselves, stick to it and succeed makes up for such failures, and Harrell noted, “On Wednesday, I had a woman come up and hug my neck and told me she's got a job as a now, a degree from a major school and she said, ‘I'm still clean' … Five years ago, she was living in a car.”

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Judge Prentiss Harrell congratulates a graduate during the 15th Circuit Intervention Court graduation at Woodlawn church in Columbia, Miss., Friday, May 31, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Intervention Court is only for nonviolent drug offenders, per agreement of judge and prosecutors and screened by MDOC caseworkers. The program includes stringent monitoring and drug testing, life skills training and lasts at least two-and-a-half years — most often three. Some participants get rolled back for minor infractions, kicked out and sent to jail for major ones.

Besides broad requirements such as being employed or enrolled in school, paying fines and fees, obtaining a GED if not a high school graduate, circuit districts can tailor the programs.

The 15th Circuit's program includes four phases. The requirement list for each phase is lengthy and includes measures such as months of sobriety, obtaining a sponsor, completing a resume and obtaining a drivers license and library card. The program even requires participants to come up with five-year life plans, complete problem solving training and even do book reports and other writing assignments.

Participants aren't taken at their word on employment or school — they have to provide W-2 tax forms and pay stubs and proof of registration and grades.

Some drug courts across the state are more robust and successful than others, said state Rep. Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown, a former law enforcement officer who attended the 15th Circuit graduation along with a handful of other lawmakers. Morgan said he believes the success of drug courts hinges — besides offenders wanting to change their lives — on devoted judges such as Harrell supporting the programs. Morgan said he'd like to see the program grow more statewide.

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“You've got to have somebody pushing the wagon,” Morgan said. “It's a good program — a second chance instead of paying through the nose to send a lot of people to prison that should at least have the opportunity of a second chance … You see the — we see the difference it makes in Marion County — of people going through this program, working and becoming better citizens instead of sitting in prison. It's not for everybody, but there are a lot of folks who benefit, and probably a lot more who could benefit.”

Some have observed that it shouldn't take arrests, felony plea deals and threat of long jail stints to provide such help to addicts. Mississippi's addiction treatment, mental health services and health care system overall are woefully inadequate.

But drug intervention courts are a drop of success in a sea of shortcomings where Mississippi's criminal justice and health care intersect.

The 15th Circuit drug court graduation, held at Woodlawn Church in Columbia on May 31, was a true celebration — something of a cross between a regular school graduation and a church revival.

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Nearly all the graduates who gave testimonial gave as much weight to their newfound faith — several said they had been baptized while in the program — as they did to the judge and caseworkers, whom they frequently referred to as family.

Harrell said he believes in separation of church and state, and that the program does not push any religious requirements on participants. He said the move toward religion and faith among many in the program tends to happen organically as people straighten out their lives. Harrell said churches in his district have helped the program tremendously throughout the years, but that he's also dealt with church communities that said they wanted to help, but then really “didn't want to get their hands dirty.”

He recounts meeting with people from one large church in his district who said they wanted to help. He explained he needed mentors, but warned that these were people with addictions and, “they'll call when they're hurting or in trouble. Some of them are tattooed up. Some of them smoke. They may not use good English, or haven't learned manners. They may lie to you.

“By the time I got through, I had no takers,” Harrell said.

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When talking about drug court, Harrell often repeats the “this isn't a silver bullet” or magical program refrain. He stresses that drug addiction is hard for anyone to beat.

“I liked Nancy Reagan,” Harrell said. “She was a sharp woman. But saying, ‘Just say no' to a drug addict rings kind of hollow … It's difficult for me to just get off Bluebell ice cream. Drug addiction is hard to break.”

Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The 2024 graduates had a lot to celebrate at the ceremony in Columbia: Eight children of graduates were born drug-free. Seven participants earned their GED. Six graduated with degrees from Pearl River Community College, and 30 received certification in trade/technical programs. They collectively performed over 150 hours of community service and paid $102,000 in court fines.

There were a couple of surprises: One graduate proposed marriage to his girlfriend. She accepted. Each graduate received an envelope along with their diploma. It was a gift of $500 each from the ceremony's keynote speaker, billionaire businessman Thomas Duff, a big supporter of drug court whose companies in the area hire many people in the program.

Harrell said, “He asked if he could provide a modest gift. I'll never be able to get a speaker next year.”

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Interviewed weeks after the ceremony, Harrell said that so far, none of the graduates had wound up back before him in court.

Fisher in his graduation testimonial marveled at the good fortune his hard work — and the help of others — brought him and vowed not to return to his old path after he found his road to Damascus.

“Today I'm graduating, and I'll be free for the first time since 2003,” Fisher said. “For the last 20 years I've either been in prison, on probation or on parole. And now I'm at the end of that road. But the end of this road is the beginning of another one. For me, it'll be a better one.”

Graduates express excitement after receiving a gift from Thomas Duff during the 15th Circuit Intervention Court graduation at Woodlawn church in Columbia, Miss., Friday, May 31, 2024. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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