(WDAM) _ Twenty years ago, then 14th District Circuit Court Judge Keith Starrett launched Mississippi’s first drug court
Friday, Starrett was honored for efforts that have impacted thousands.
Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph presented Starrett with the 2019 “Chief Justice Award” during the annual Mississippi Bar Convention.
The “Chief Justice Award” is given annually to individuals “whose actions have significantly impacted the law and the people of the state of Mississippi.”
Starrett, U.S. District judge for the Southern District of Mississippi, Eastern Division, was recognized for his innovations with drug court, “his work to implement criminal justice reforms, and his continuing efforts to implement reentry programs that reduce recidivism and help former offenders become productive citizens.”
In presenting the award, Randolph read directly from the plaque: “Your efforts have impacted thousands. Your actions have led to the restoration of countless lives and the reunification of innumerable families. You have worked tirelessly to bring reform to our courts and redemption to the lives of those who have strayed.”
Despite no funding and no statutory framework, Starrett launched the drug court movement in Mississippi two decades ago with his creation of the state’s first felony adult drug court in the 14th Circuit District of Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties.
The central principle of drug courts was to provide substance-abuse treatment and intense supervision rather than incarceration so that people who committed crimes to feed their drug addiction can become drug free and support themselves and their families.
Now, 40 drug courts exist statewide, including one in every one of the state’s 22 circuit courts. In addition, another 12 juvenile drug courts, three family drug courts and three misdemeanor drug courts have been created. Nearly 4,000 people are enrolled in drug court programs.
The drug-court model in recent years has expanded into a broader program of problem-solving courts, first with the development of a few veterans’ drug court programs, then a more recent push to create mental health courts.
Starrett served on the Board of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals for eight years and was board chair for two years. He was selected for the Goldstein National Drug Court Hall of Fame.
After he was appointed to the federal judiciary, Starrett started one of the first federal reentry courts in the country. He wanted offenders to have drug treatment and learn employment skills and coping skills to avoid lapsing back into drug addiction and criminal behavior when they served out their sentences.
Starrett leads federal Reentry Courts in the Southern District of Mississippi and serves as chair of the Reentry Committee for the Fifth Circuit. He has served as chairman of the Mississippi Reentry Council since it began as an ad hoc group in December 2013. The Mississippi Legislature formalized the Reentry Council by statute in 2015.
The Reentry Council works to create effective strategies to assist former inmates in their return to society, reduce recidivism, provide ample funds for operating the state prison system and improve public safety.
Starrett’s 27-year judicial career began in 1992 when then-Gov. Kirk Fordice appointed him to the 14th Circuit. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
On April 30, 2019, Starrett took senior status, a judicial retirement, but continues to carry a caseload.
His chambers are in Hattiesburg, but he also spends time at his residence in McComb.
Starrett was in private law practice before he took the bench. He graduated from Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi School of Law.