The Chancery Courts of Humphreys and Sunflower counties and the Yazoo County Youth Court implemented juvenile drug intervention courts in August.
Chancellor Debra Giles presides over Youth Courts and the new Drug Intervention Courts in Humphreys and Sunflower counties. Youth Court Judge Betsy Cotton leads the new program in Yazoo County.
Six juveniles are enrolled so far in the Ninth Chancery program, and four are enrolled in the Yazoo County program. Both drug intervention courts expect a capacity of about 20 participants.
Judge Giles said, “ We are here to serve our community. We are here to make the world a better place for our children.”
Juvenile drug intervention courts work to reduce juvenile substance abuse and delinquent behavior through a collaborative community process of interventions with juveniles and their families to help them lead clean and sober lives. Law enforcement, defense attorneys, Youth Court prosecutors, substance abuse counselors and school officials work together to help youth get off drugs and avoid future drug use. Juveniles 13-17 years old may be referred from the Youth Court, from law enforcement, from school officials and by parents.
Judge Cotton said, “Hopefully, we will be able to all come together to get the kids in here where we can get some help for them. I’ve seen too many kids waste their talents, waste their lives. We want to try to help them be successful.”
The programs are structured as a way to help kids rather than punish them. Judge Cotton said, “My heart is with helping them to do better, not with the punishment.”
Delinquent acts such as fighting or property crimes land juveniles in Youth Court. But drug use is an underlying factor in about three fourths of the cases that come into her court, Judge Cotton said.
She expects the Juvenile Drug Intervention Court to reduce juvenile delinquency. “If we get to the root of the problem, then some of the other delinquent behavior will slow down as well. In the long run, what we will see is reduction (in delinquency) when we get to the bottom of it.”
“If we can keep them out of the detention center and address the problem, that’s what I want to do. That is my last option, to put them in detention.”
The drug intervention courts refer juveniles to drug treatment if needed. The intervention courts require frequent drug testing and periodic meetings with the judge. Individual counseling and family counseling also are provided.
Drug intervention court staff assess the individual needs of juveniles and tailor programs for each one to address the problem.
Judge Giles said, “What we are trying to do is a good assessment of each individual child. If a parent needs drug and alcohol treatment, insure that the mom or dad gets drug and alcohol treatment. If the child is behind in school, communicate with the school to see what are the needs for that child to progress....It’s basically looking at wrap around services for each child.”
“One of the things which I recognized was that we definitely needed a mental health or behavioral health person on staff,” Judge Giles said. In Humphreys and Sunflower counties, county funds that used to be used to pay part-time referee judges for Youth Court will soon be used to hire a mental health counselor in the drug intervention courts. Judge Giles began overseeing all Youth Court proceedings herself when she took the Ninth Chancery Court bench in January 2019. Boards of Supervisors in Humphreys and Sunflower counties recently approved redirecting the funding, Judge Giles said. She received the approval from Sunflower County Supervisors on Sept. 21.
Judge Giles said, “We are very limited here in the Delta with our mental health resources. Those funds will be used to hire a mental health counselor to be there to address the needs of our children.”
The Administrative Office of Courts allocated $75,000 to both courts for the state's fiscal year which started July 1, 2020 and runs through June 30, 2021. The $75,000 is intended to partially cover staffing, drug testing and treatment costs for the two-county Ninth Chancery program and for the Yazoo County Juvenile Drug Intervention Court.
Yazoo County also received $11,000 from the Mississippi Division of Public Safety Planning Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, Judge Cotton said.
Judge Cotton sought to create the Juvenile Drug Intervention Court to operate at little to no additional expense to Yazoo County. Even the furniture for the new program’s office came from surplus county property and from donations by individuals. “Those were a huge help in working within the budgets created by the funds obtained to operate the program,” she said.
“The idea for me was that I wanted to help the kids any way I could think of with the least amount of cost to the county,” Judge Cotton said. “We are a county with limited resources.”
A total of 44 drug intervention courts operate across the state. There are 15 juvenile drug intervention courts, three family drug intervention courts, four misdemeanor drug intervention courts and 22 felony drug courts – one in each Circuit Court district.