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The next evolution of drug courts in Mississippi

Drug courts have existed in Mississippi since the 1990s. The idea emerged as an alternative criminal justice intervention for people dealing with addiction. Although the traditional approach was to sentence drug users to prison, drug courts instead allow participants to remain at home while completing drug treatment programs.

Drug courts usually incorporate frequent meetings with court officers who coach and counsel participants throughout the process. The programs can last months or several years, and at their conclusion participants generally have their charges dropped or their criminal record expunged.

In recent years, the drug court concept has been expanded to address people with mental health issues, veterans, and other populations who typically encounter the criminal justice system. These programs are generally referred to as “problem-solving courts.” States are increasingly turning to problem-solving courts as a way to reduce incarceration rates and provide better outcomes for justice-involved individuals.

Mississippi has created some problem-solving courts, but the state’s work in this area lags behind other jurisdictions. Grading Justice, which rates the state’s progress on criminal justice issues, gives Mississippi a grade of C for its problem-solving courts. The scorecard provides an overview of problem-solving courts in the state and ways this infrastructure can be expanded to provide better outcomes for Mississippians.

Mississippi’s Grade of C is derived from its work in four areas relating to problem-sovling courts: availability, policies, access, and services. The state receives top rankings for availability due to its statewide framework for drug courts. Drug courts are managed by individual circuit court districts, funded by state appropriation, and managed by the Administrative Office of the Courts and Drug Court Advisory Committee.

Mississippi’s policies relating to problem-solving courts are rated poorly due to the lack of standards in place. Mississippi’s drug court policies are determined by a Drug Court Advisory Committee comprised primarily of judges, who are not appropriately incentivized to adopt evidence-based practices. This arrangement results in a lack of evidence-based policies, with many drug courts extending participation periods far beyond the nationally recommended time frame, and imposing sanctions that result in undue financial hardships on defendants.

The state also receives low marks for access since scholarships are limited and poor individuals are often excluded from participating in these programs. The breadth of services is also limited, with mental health courts only available in select jurisdictions.

Mississippi can improve outcomes for individuals in the criminal justice system by improving its policies related to problem-solving courts. Improvements would allow Mississippi to catch up with states like neighboring Louisiana, which received a B for its problem-solving court policies from Grading Justice. These programs are proven to reduce incarceration rates, address underlying issues that lead to crime, and improve public safety. Expanding access would create a safer and more productive state for all Mississippians.

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