Drug courts work, and they save money in the long run.
That’s the message state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph brought to the McComb Lions Club on Tuesday.
“In the last seven years, 5,400 people have graduated from drug courts,” Randolph said. “They had to pay for their own tests ... They had to have a clean act for four or five years. A similar number failed, but no treatment center will give you a 50 percent success rate.”
He proudly pointed out additional statistics resulting from the state’s drug courts as well:
• More than 500 drug-free babies born.
• More than 400 GEDs earned.
• More than 3,800 employed.
• More than 450 attended vocational school.
• More than 1,300 attended postsecondary schools.
• More than 600 attended traditional schools.
• More than 120 attended alternative schools.
• More than 950 obtained driver’s licenses.
Based on incarceration rates and the cost of holding prisoners, Randolph said drug courts have saved the state more than $452 million since 2012, including a high of $65.6 million in the previous fiscal year and $10.8 million in the first two months of the current fiscal year, a pace that could match the previous year’s savings.
He said drug-free babies save about $750,000 through their first 18 years for an additional $39 million.
Beyond those savings, “people in the drug courts have to be employed,” Randolph said. “Those people are paying taxes. We can’t even count the money that’s coming in (to state coffers).
“This makes changes in people. It not just about money, it’s about improving society.”
Randolph said the judiciary, one of the state’s three branches of government, takes just 1% of the state budget. His official request for the next budget year, starting July 1, is about $88 million, which is about $4.3 million more than the current fiscal year.
He estimated that the savings from drug courts, as well as proposed pilots of veterans and mental health courts, would exceed $71 million for the 2021 fiscal year.
The veterans courts “would be for nonviolent crimes,” Randolph said. “If there’s a chance to rehabilitate them, this would put them on that course.”
Equating the courts to a business, he said that amount of savings would be a significant return on investment for the state.
“No other (government) spender can show more of a return than the courts,” Randolph said. “Whoever you’re voting for the Legislature, tell them to give the chief justice what he’s asking for.
“This thing works. It more than pay for itself.”
He credited former circuit judge Keith Starrett of McComb, now a federal district judge on senior status, with creating the state’s first drug court, in response to the climbing incarceration rates and costs for jailing those convicted of even minor drug offenses.
“It was the same rule as on the federal level: Lock ’em up and throw away the key,” Randolph said. “Since 2012, the number of people going to prison has gone down, and judges have saved $452 million that would have been spent at Parchman if judges hadn’t met with drug court participants on Saturday mornings.”
Almost half of the budget increase requested is to boost pay for judges that hasn’t been raised since 2012, to compensate judges for the increased duties they’ve taken on with drug courts and other special courts.
Randolph said that would help keep judges on the job, after 42 of them opted to retire rather than seek re-election last year across the state.
“I’ve had to appoint 500 substitute judges so far,” Randolph said. “It can be hard to find people for that, because the available lawyers are likely involved in cases that the judge would need to hear.”
He said the state’s courts, especially the Supreme Court, are in better shape than when he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Haley Barbour in 2004.
Then, “there was 481⁄2 years of combined appellate experience on the Supreme Court,” he said. “Today, it’s 108 years and five months, more than double what it was when I joined the court, because judges come up to us from the Court of Appeals.
“In 2004, the court was a mess. Justices were suing each other, and businesses were talking about leaving the state (because of tort case verdicts). Now we have more stability on the court.”
The court system has also improved its response time on appeals. From up to five years to receive an appellate judgment when he joined the court, Randolph said the timeline has been streamlined to 270 days from filing to ruling.