Jefferson County Circuit Judge Berlin C. Jones said Thursday that if the Jefferson County Drug Court is successful, the entire community benefits.
“In Arkansas, it cost $4.50 a day for a person in drug court and $45 to $50 a day to put them in the penitentiary,” Jones told the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club.
Jones, who has presided over drug court since it began in 2004, said drug courts were created as a way to reduce the population in the state’s prisons and while admitting that there are some people that need to be locked up, “everyone doesn’t belong in prison,” he said.
“When you send a person to prison, particularly for a short period of time, all you’re doing is teaching that person how to do time,” Jones said. “They have no fear of prison and are subject to doing any thing they want because they know how to handle prison.”
“All prisons do is warehouse people,” Jones said. “When they come back to society are they rehabilitated? No. Are they trained for a job? No. When you bring them back and they have no employment skills and no mind change, they’re going to do the same things they did over and over again.”
As an example, he cited cases of people arrested for multiple burglaries and thefts just to feed their drug habit.
“By treating the drug problem, we can stop the burglaries,” Jones said.
According to numbers compiled by Jones’ staff, 21 percent of all the cases filed by the prosecuting attorney’s office are drug related, and in Pine Bluff specifically, 39 percent of all the cases worked are drug related.
“Before drug court began, we had a revolving door,” Jones said. “People could ruin their lives for a dime bag ($10) of marijuana, and for every one that was picked up, we could have picked up 10 more.”
Jefferson County Drug Court began with five people in 2004 and Jones said that as of August of this year, 277 people have entered the program, 54 of them graduating, and another 45 being discharged for violations or had their probation revoked. Only four graduates have been charged with new felonies. There are currently 66 people in the program.
“Our goal is to get them off drugs and get them clean so they can enjoy life,” Jones said.
While street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana get much of the attention from the public when words like “drug abuse” come up, Jones said there are also significant problems associated with prescription drugs and alcohol, both of which are legal.
“Prescription medicines are one of the most highly abused drugs,” Jones said. “If you’ve got a headache you take a pill. If you can’t sleep, you take a pill. To get alert, you take a pill. There’s a pill for everything.”
He said that when young people see their parents constantly taking pills, it has an effect on them.
“You’re teaching your children that if they have any kind of problem, there’s probably something in the house that will settle them down,” Jones said.
The judge said the drug court program works to change behavior and requires participants to work or be in school, pay their bills and court ordered obligations like fines, fees and child support, as well as attend group and individual counseling sessions, and submit random drug tests.
“All of the programs in the world won’t help until people want help,” Jones said. “Our goal is to build up the person, get them to change their thinking and get them off drugs so they can enjoy life.”
Successful graduates of the normally 18-month program are eligible to have their records expunged.