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Drug Court Grads

First class of graduates earn fresh start after drug court

By Billy Davis

A rigorous three-year program for drug offenders held its first graduation this week, honoring 13 people who have completed the course.

The graduation ceremony for the 17th Circuit Drug Court was held Monday at the county courthouse in Hernando. Two Panola Countians were among the graduates.

“We have seen lives changed, not only for the participants but also for their families,” said Ann Lamar, a Mississippi Supreme Court justice. She was expected to address the graduates Monday.

Lamar had formerly served as circuit judge for the 17th District, which covers counties DeSoto, Tate, Tallahatchie, Yalobusha and Panola.

Approximately 205 participants are enrolled in the 17th District Drug Court, according to Drug Court coordinator Craig Sheley.

A drug court seeks to rehabilitate drug users through a demanding program of treatment and supervision.

In the 17th District, drug offenders in Drug Court must submit to frequent drug testing, meet weekly before a circuit court judge, and attend counseling sessions for drug or alcohol abuse. They also call a parole officer every day to learn if drug tests will be conducted.

The demanding schedule slows as the program progresses.

“When you first get in it, you don’t think you’ll make it,” said Vanessa Russell, 34, of Batesville.

Russell entered Drug Court after she was caught at a pharmacy with an altered prescription. She had begun using Lortab, a powerful narcotic, after her husband and brother were killed in a car wreck, she said.

“I did it to hide the pain,” she said. “Before it was over, I had hit rock bottom.”

Now remarried, and with her mind and body clear, Russell said she plans to move to Arkansas and start over with her husband and children.  

The completion of Drug Court expunges the conviction from Russell’s record, allowing her to search for a job without a felony conviction. Russell said she chose Drug Court over a light sentence, one year of house arrest, because of the promise of a clean record.

Russell and other drug offenders enter Drug Court after pleading guilty to their charges. The court requires them to remain employed, pay off court fines, and pay a $100 monthly fee to participate.

The second Panola County graduate was facing an eight-year prison sentence for possession of cocaine.  Authorities found the cocaine in her car when they pulled “C. C.” over for an expired tag.

“I didn’t do it just to stay out of prison,” said the woman, who preferred the name “C. C.” for this newspaper story.

“I did it because I have a four-year-old daughter,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I had to be here for her.”

C. C. said she began with marijuana at age 18 then progressed to cocaine and crystal meth by her early 20s.

“I lived that life for so long. I was in a rut,” she said. “I didn’t know there was a better life out there, but Drug Court took me from the streets to my family.”