djr-2020-04-10-news-drug-court-art

Judge John White prepares paperwork with Jennifer Cummings, the drug court administrator, before a court session. Due to COVID-19, White has had to get creative to meet with drug court participants.

TUPELO • The First Circuit District Drug Court has had to roll with the punches for the last four weeks to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

When support groups started canceling meetings to avoid large gatherings, Circuit Judge John White had to be more lenient with the program’s guidelines.

To avoid having up to 100 people in a room for the regular Thursday and Friday court sessions, White opted for drive-thru drug court. But after two successful weeks, even that had to be cancelled when Gov. Tate Reeves issued a stay at home order.

“I think we are working as well as we can under the circumstances,” White said. “All the drug court judges and staff (across the state) have been holding Zoom meetings trying to figure out what to do.”

Participants in drug court have to call in every day to see if they have been selected for a random drug test. They must also regularly attend support group meetings, some as often as twice a week. Under normal circumstances, someone who misses meetings can be sentenced to spend a weekend in jail.

As the fear of the coronavirus spread in mid-March, more and more support meetings were cancelled. So White had to be forgiving.

To avoid large crowds inside a single courtroom twice a week, White and court administrator Jennifer Cummings thought outside the box. The drug court offices in Booneville and Tupelo both have large parking lots, so they decided to hold drive-thru drug court.

Instead of pulling in the parking lot and going inside, participants lined up their cars and rolled up to the judge.

“It went really well,” White said. “I got to visually see and greet every participant.

“We would randomly select some numbers before we started. Then when that number car came up, all the participants in that car had to be tested. We figured that was the fairest way we could handle it and still be random.”

After the state stay at home order went into effect last Friday, White decided to scrap the drive-thru drug court for the time being.

“We are asking the participants to adhere to the governor’s stay at home order,” White said. “Once that executive order has expired, we might start back with the drive-thru drug court.”

The state order is set to expire April 20, unless conditions statewide have not improved and Reeves is forced to extend it.

Even though participants don’t have to drive to the weekly court proceedings, they still have to call in every day. If they have been randomly selected for a drug test, they will have to drive to Tupelo or Booneville to give a urine sample with the statewide stay at home order in place.

“That was a concern, but we were told by MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) that we can direct them to do that,” White said. “The biggest thing is to insure we continue testing. Random drug testing is the backbone of drug court.

“The knowledge that they could be tested at any time is enough to keep many participants from going back to drugs. They know one positive test could send them back to jail.”

The First Circuit District Drug Court serves people in Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties. It has a distinct advantage over all the other drug courts in the state – it is separate from the regular circuit courtrooms. When county courthouses around the state started locking their doors because of the pandemic, this drug court was able to continue.

“We don’t have to rely on any courthouse,” White said. “Judge (Jim) Pounds set this drug court up separate and in hindsight, that was a blessing. A lot of drug court judges don’t have the options I do.”

william.moore@journalinc.com

Twitter:@WilliamMoore_DJ

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