One of the issues discussed in the 17 circuit court races across Mississippi this year is the drug court program. Most notably, the contest in the Eighth Circuit District (Leake, Neshoba, Newton, Scott) between incumbent Judge Vernon R. Cotten and challenger Jes Smith has placed the program central in the campaigns; both addressed it in their speeches at the Neshoba County Fair.

Smith was slightly critical of the program, while Cotton said it was "rehabilitating fallen people with broken lives." Smith suggested that while drug dealers are not permitted in drug court, sometimes they are allowed to plead to a possession charge and thus enter the program. Cotten has said drug dealers are not eligible under any circumstances.

Cotten's issue received support from Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr. who praised drug court during his Fair speech saying, "it is changing lives." He said the savings to the state just from the 128 Neshoba participants was about $1.5 million or $12,000 per person. That calculation is based on a 2008 Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) report placing the average cost per inmate per year in the Mississippi Department of Corrections at $15,169.40; while the average cost of participation in drug court annually is $2,500.

What is drug court? To qualify, participants must not be violent offenders and must not be selling drugs. About 80 percent of felonies in Mississippi are drug or alcohol related and the program provides an alternative route - if the participant succeeds - to the penitentiary. Crimes often involve illegal drug possession or check fraud. Prosecutors typically must recommend the program; the participant pleads guilty. If the participant fails to meet the requirements of the program: get and hold a job, stay out of trouble, stay clean and sober, report to judge and officers of the program - they go straight to jail.

Rather than being a drain on taxpayers, the participants must have a job, support their families, and pay the costs of the drug court program. Rather than occupying a prison bed better reserved for a violent criminal, the addict pursues treatment under the watchful eye of the court. And rather than a 32 to 38 percent prison recidivism rate, drug court's rate of repeat criminal activity is only 5 percent.

It isn't soft on crime; it is smart on crime. Success is a win for the individual, a win for the community, a win for taxpayers, and a win for the corrections system. Failure puts the person in jail, where they would have been anyway.

I first observed drug court in Brookhaven in 2000 where then Circuit Court Judge Keith Starrett - now a federal district court judge - pioneered the program.

Every session, the participants would come in and update Starrett on their progress or lack thereof. On the faces of many were smiles and pride at continued accomplishment. Occasionally, there were tears as a participant relapsed into alcohol or drugs and pleaded for a second chance. Starrett would remind them that drug court was their second chance. There was not a third chance.

I watched one participant admit he had gotten back into drugs, again, and understood the consequences. He apologized to Starrett; apologized to his fellow participants; and was taken straight to the penitentiary.

That drug court program was funded with a federal grant as a pilot program for Mississippi. Starrett advocated the program to the legislature and across the state and found support among Democrats and Republicans; law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Starrett told me the program needed two things to succeed: consistent funding and a judge with a heart for the program. He said drug court only works when a judge is willing to put the time and effort into it and the participants. It went beyond the required duties of the judge and could be emotionally straining; but it made a difference in the community. Today, much of the funding comes from the participants themselves.

Participants who make it to the conclusion of the program typically attend a graduation ceremony. For some, this is the first recognition of success in their lives. The pride they and their families' share contrasts with the despair they faced with prison.

Since that first felony level drug court in Lincoln, Pike and Walthall Counties in 1999, Mississippi has expanded the program to 34 certified drug courts. (The first certified drug court was Cotten's program started in December of 2003.) The 2009 Mississippi Supreme Court Annual Report credits the growth with the legislature's 2003 adoption of the "Alyce Griffin Clarke Drug Court Act" which, "created the necessary framework for expansion of the drug court model throughout Mississippi. Since its passage, over 4,000 Mississippians have benefited from this effective alternative in dealing with the problems of substance abuse."

Certainly drug courts can be a campaign issue; but as public policy in Mississippi they have proven successful.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.