Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph believes it’s important for the Legislature to make good on an unfulfilled promise to give judges a pay increase and to bolster court funding in general, saying initiatives such as drug courts are giving a state a good return on its investment.
Speaking to the McComb Exchange Club on Thursday, Randolph said the lawmakers OK’d a pay increase for judges in 2012, but nothing ever came of it.
Meanwhile, with the expansion of drug courts, the creation of a new court system for veterans, and suspects struggling with mental health issues are putting more work on the backs of the judiciary.
The drug court program alone, first enacted in Pike County by former Circuit Judge Keith Starrett, has more than paid for itself both in terms of financial and human capital, Randolph said.
“The return on the investment in the courts in this state will shock you,” he said.
Since 2012, when the pay raises for judges were approved along with mandates to promote and start new drug court systems, judges have saved the state $457 million in incarceration costs through the drug court system, Randolph said.
The Legislature earlier this year approved the creation of mental health and veterans courts, and Randolph predicted those intervention programs could save the state another $71 million in fiscal year 2021.
“The role of judges has changed significantly and most people don’t even know it,” Randolph said.
Randolph said drug courts give people a second chance to turns their lives around and avoid serious jail time, which he said isn’t appropriate for some offenders anyway.
“If you send an 18-year-old to Parchman, you’ll make him a good criminal,” he said.
He said drug court participants have to pay for twice-a-week drug testing, and about 50% of participants succeed.
“The Betty Ford Center doesn't have statistics like that,” he said.
Drug court lasts about three to five years with a no-excuses sobriety requirement.
“Some of them slip up and they’re sent back to the program,” he said.
Besides helping people get clean, Randolph said drug court leads to fewer drug-addicted babies being born in the state, which Bureau of Justice Statistics show saves the state an average of $750,000 for the first 18 years of that child’s life.
Over the past seven years, more than 5,000 people have graduated from the program, with 411 earning their GEDs, 3,800 finding jobs, 455 attending vocational school, 1,300 attending post-secondary school and more than 1,000 obtaining a driver’s license.
“Now, if they went to Parchman, you would be paying for it,” he said.
Given that, Randolph said he’s asking the Legislature for an additional $2 million to create mental health and veterans courts and another $2 million for judicial pay raises.
He said Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who was just elected lieutenant governor, has been touting a plan to seek a 1% cut in spending across all state agencies. But Randolph said Hosemann agreed not to touch court spending after he pointed out the judiciary isn’t a state agency but rather a branch of government.
“It's time to quit ignoring the people who are saving more money this state than anyone else,” Randolph said.