Drug court can help some addicts get back on track

Offenders with violent or sex-related crimes are disallowed from participating

By Lici Beveridge
The Hattiesburg American

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) —” From the time Iris Thompson was 18, she was addicted to crack cocaine.

She experimented with alcohol and other drugs like marijuana from the time she was 14, but at 18 crack became her drug of choice.

For 18 years she chased it, always living for the next high, doing whatever it took to get the substance that made her feel oh-so-good.

Sometimes that “whatever it took” landed her on the wrong side of the law.

“I was in jail numerous times,” she said. “I just couldn’t get myself together.”

When she was 23, she went to church, got saved and was clean for a few years but relapsed when she was 30.

Thompson was in love with crack cocaine, and that was all she cared about. Nothing else mattered, she said. Nothing, except finding a way to get the next high.

Six years later, Thompson was facing a felony drug charge and the possibility of time in prison, but even that didn’t deter her from life as a drug addict.

“At the time, I went into drug court because I wanted to turn my life around,” she said. “But I was so deep in my addiction, a lot of people thought I was a lost cause. They thought I couldn’t do it.”

She said she accepted the offer to participate in the drug court program but immediately went about doing whatever she wanted to do.

“I still wasn’t ready,” she said.

But she once again was arrested and sent to Rankin County, where she was locked up for nearly a year.

“It was there, in Rankin County, I decided I didn’t want to live this way anymore,” she said. ‘I wanted my career back as a hairdresser and I wanted my life back.”

Thompson decided she needed a breakup with the substance that consumed her life, and since Dec. 23, 2006, she has been clean and sober.

“So many good things have happened to me since then,” she said. “I owe it all to drug court. And God.

“I was in the gutter. Now I’m not in the gutter anymore.”

Thompson, now 46, has built a career as a hairdresser and owns her own business, The Cutting Edge Salon in Runnelstown.

“Drug Court saved my life,” she said. “Actually, each time I got put in jail saved my life. That’s how bad off I was.

“I’m just so thankful I don’t have to live that life anymore.”

12th District Circuit Judge Bob Helfrich said over the years as a public defender and a prosecutor, he heard stories like Thompson’s. He said he’d see the same people over and over again — all of them drug users.

So when he was elected to the circuit court and took office in 2003, one of the first things he did was start a drug court.

“The criminal justice system has been a revolving door for years,” he said. “In fact, it’s broken. It has been broken.

“We’re filling our prisons with nonviolent drug abusers. Drug court was a promising solution.”

Drug courts have a proven track record with numerous studies showing a high rate of success.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, about 75 percent of drug court graduates are never arrested again. That is in comparison to 30 percent of individuals who are imprisoned for their crimes.

And drug court is cost-effective. It costs on average $17,000 to $19,000 a year to house an inmate in prison. Drug court costs around $1,500 a year per individual, Helfrich said.

Drug court participants are screened, and once accepted must complete a three-year program in order to graduate. For first-time offenders, the felony will be taken off their record, giving them a chance to start fresh.

But completing the program isn’t easy and not everyone can qualify. Offenders charged with violent or sex-related crimes may not participate in drug court programs.

Once accepted, participants must complete a drug rehabilitation program, either inpatient or outpatient as the need is determined. Daily attendance at self-help programs is required, as is random drug testing twice a week.

Drug court participants also must obtain a GED if they didn’t finish high school, and either be employed or going to school.

There are other requirements in the program, and the participants are required to complete them all.

Thompson said when she started drug court it was a five-year program. It took a while, but things began to click for her once she realized she had a problem and needed to deal with it.

“For the longest time, I blamed it on this, blamed it on that,” she said. “But once I started taking responsibility for my own actions and admit that I have a problem, that’s when my life changed.”
 

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