TUPELO • When drugs took over Kim Benefield’s life, she knew she needed help to change. And drug court was there for her.

“I tried probation, that didn’t work,” Benefield said. “I needed someone to tell me where to be and when to be home. I needed that structure.

“Drug court – they were very good to me. They told me I could do it. But I was so horrified about going back to jail that I carried the handbook with me everywhere.”

Since the First Circuit Court district began its drug court in April 2008, more than 300 people have graduated from the rigidly structured program that takes a minimum of three years to complete.

Not only are these people put on a path toward living a productive drug-free life, they are also paying their debt to society – literally. The 35 who graduated last year paid a total of $170,183.45 in fines, costs and restitution to the seven counties in the circuit district.

Currently, there are 277 participants in the program, which normally runs around 250. And with the numbers up, Circuit Court Judge John R. White hopes to recruit more businesses willing to hire drug court participants.

“We have got to promote this program to businesses,” White said. “People complain about their employees and drugs. I can give you a drug-free employee if you are willing to work with the program.”

The businesses have to give some concessions. Participants have to call the court after 3 p.m. every day to see it they were chosen for a random drug test. If they have been picked, they have to get to the court to supply a urine sample before 6 p.m. Participants also need time off to go to court, either Wednesday morning in Booneville or Thursday afternoon in Tupelo.

In exchange, the business will get a tax break as well as clean and sober employees striving to straighten out their life.

“We can vouch that they are clean and sober. They just need to be given a chance,” said Benefield, who now works with Families First as the court’s re-entry program coordinator. “These employees are not calling in sick and are not a liability. We monitor behavior on a regular basis and can tell if someone is using.”

And if the participant is using drugs, the business doesn’t have to go through the hassle of contacting human resources and trying to schedule a drug test like with most employees. A call to drug court in the morning will lead to a drug test that afternoon.

Having a job is an important part of drug court and the recovery process.

“We send them to job navigators, to see what they are interested in,” Benefield said. “The idea is to get their life structured enough to understand accountability.

“It helps to have that structure to lean on while coming off drugs. If they mess up, they get sent back to us.”

Former Circuit Court Judge Jim Pounds started the court in Booneville and expanded it to include a Tupelo office in 2014. Following the retirement of Pounds, Judge White took over the program in January.

“Judge Pounds was a great steward,” White said. “He left it in a beautiful condition. My job is to just maintain what he started.”

The program is broken into five phases, starting with rehabilitation at a certified facility. Phase 2 includes two support group meetings per week, at least two drug tests a week and a 10 p.m. curfew. The participants must also begin paying any court-ordered monies and keep current on their payment plans.

Failing a drug test, missing a support group or court, or not paying fines will lead to sanctions. Those can be anything from jail time to being kicked out of the program.

“It’s about changing behavior and consequences for actions,” White said. “There are incentives for appropriate behavior and consequences for inappropriate behavior.”

As they progress through the five phases, certain requirements – like drug court sessions and the curfew – are eased. Other requirements – support group meetings, paying court fines and random drug tests – remain constant throughout the program.

If the participant did not complete high school, they must get their GED to graduate from drug court.

New to the job

Since he ran unopposed for Pounds’ seat, White was able to get an early start getting acclimated to drug court. He began working with the drug court shortly after qualifying ended in the summer of 2018.

“I went (to drug court) as many times as I could,” White said. “I sat in on meetings on money, policy and procedures. All those were a benefit to me.

“Drug court is the hardest thing I have to do, but it is the most rewarding. When you see someone finally get off their mother’s couch and get a job, that is fulfilling.”

He has only been in charge for eight months,but White has started tweaking the program. When someone graduates, along with the certificate, White now hands them a signed expungement order, clearing their record.

The court hired a public defender so the participants have representation if needed. White is also instituting weekly staff meetings that will include therapists, district attorneys and case workers to discus problems before things grow.

“That way, I will have more information before I take the bench,” White said. “We want to approach each case as a group.”

While some other drug courts are just 18 months with aftercare, White has no plans to reformat the program. That’s because in other programs, there are no repercussions if someone messes up or relapses in aftercare.

“In our program, phases 4 and 5 are essentially aftercare, and we have sanctions,” White said.

White and Benefield agree that sanctions, including the threat of returning to jail, are needed to make some participants remain straight. She noticed it working with a different re-entry program before Families First. People would do well in her classes but life on their own without the structure of the program would prove too tempting for some.

“People would do well in the classes but after 6-10 months, we would get a call on them,” Benefield said. “It’s because we were not following through. Now, we follow the participants for two years. After a while, the accountability is ingrained in them.

“It takes three years to rewire the brain (to not want drugs) but it takes seven years to fully restore it.”

There was a recent change in drug court. A statewide change rebranded the program Interventions Court. The drug court program falls under that umbrella. But it also opens the door to expand the program to serve a more specific population.

White hopes to create a veterans court with the assistance of fellow rookie circuit court judge Kelly Mims. They have already identified around a dozen participants who would qualify for veterans court. The judges hope to have a pilot program up and running by the end of the year.

Having seen both sides of drug court – as both a participant and an instructor – Benefield knows the program will work when the participant buys into the system.

“Drug court really, truly has made a difference in the lives of many people,” Benefield said. “God blessed me with this job.

“Drug court can give you a new life, new job, new career and a brain that is working better.”

william.moore@journalinc.com

Twitter:@WilliamMoore_DJ

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