In New Courts, Kids on Drugs Get the Treatment

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Phoenix, Ariz.—Garrett is just 14, but he's about to fail a test that could send him to jail.

"I was around some people who got high," he tells the judge.

"Around some people?"

"I won't lie to you. I hit it a couple of times."

That's bad news in Maricopa County juvenile drug court, testing ground for the hottest experiment on youthful offenders who use drugs. Garrett can stay free if he stays off drugs; but the slight, clean-cut boy fidgets in his seat as he confesses that today's urine test will reveal traces of marijuana.

Judge John Foreman glares down from the bench: "You know what your file says about you? It says you have an excuse for everything." He tells Garrett to walk toward a woman who holds a pair of shackles. "Click. Click." Ankles bound, the boy shuffles through a door to spend a week in the Durango County Juvenile Detention Center.

He is among more than 2,700 youths who in the past four years have marched through juvenile drug courts, which blend the fear of jail with strength-based youth development, intensive supervision and family therapy. Launched at a half dozen sites in 1995, there are now 90 such courts nationwide. Seventy-two more are in the works.

"They are considerably more effective than the existing system," says Caroline Cooper, associate director of justice programs at American University, which runs the Drug Court Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Project under a two-year, $950,000 contract with the U.S. Justice Department.

Or are they? Researchers lament a paucity of evaluation data. No one knows the long-term impact on kids. Some juvenile court judges and lawyers say the new courts do what juvenile courts should do anyway, and worry that the growth of drug courts may suck more low-level delinquents into a criminal justice system where they don't belong.

"This could be net-widening," says Jeni Gainsborough, senior policy analyst at the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice watchdog that promotes alternative sentencing.

So why did the U.S. Justice Department spend $9 million last year to expand juvenile drug courts and start new ones? Why did 1,300 youth workers, judges and lawyers flock here in January to the first National Juvenile Drug Court Conference?

Because initial (albeit spotty) results are promising, and because supporters say traditional juvenile courts don't have the resources to help kids break their drug/crime cycle.

Courts Overwhelmed

From 1989 to 1993, the caseload of the nation's juvenile courts grew 23 percent, to nearly 1.5 million. Judges said the number and severity of the cases threatened juvenile courts' mission to divert and rehabilitate young offenders. The crimes were more severe, the drug use was more widespread (Justice Department surveys indicate that more than half of all kids brought to juvenile court test positive for alcohol or illegal drugs), and the kids' home lives were more unstable, with increasing numbers of kids being raised by parents who were single, used drugs, or had been arrested themselves.

Consider Sonya: she walked into Foreman's drug court as a 15-year-old drug-user who'd been expelled from middle school for fighting. She was living with a succession of relatives. Her mother was on probation for drug possession. The girl had just been arrested for theft and credit card forgery; then she got pregnant.

In traditional juvenile court, "We had too many kids with substance abuse and mental health problems for whom there was no program available," Foreman says.

But when Foreman tried to launch a drug court here in 1992, he found little support. "It's resource intensive," he says, requiring more time from judges, lawyers and probation officers (as they develop plans and closely monitor each youth) and more money for contracts with treatment providers.

Then the Justice Department got excited about the idea. Seeing some success with adult drug courts that it helped to set up in 1989, the department began funding juvenile drug courts through the Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Office of Justice Programs awarded $100,000 in grants in 1995 to help create a half dozen of the new courts (in places such as Pensacola, Fla., Reno, Nev., and Salt Lake City, Utah). The idea grew fast: from 1997-99 the OJP planning, implementation and expansion grants totaled $17 million.

Most juvenile drug courts work with a mix of federal, state and local funds (although more than one-third have received no federal drug court funds). For instance, the Phoenix court was established in 1997 with $400,000 in federal funds and $133,000 from the state Supreme Court and the county Board of Supervisors.

There is concern, however, about the proliferation of such specialty courts stripping cases from juvenile court. "You have drug courts. Some places want to have gun courts. There are truancy courts," says Jim Toner, dean of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, based in Reno, Nev. To deal with that concern, the drug courts are kept within juvenile court. "That seems to work pretty well," Toner says.

That still leaves the question: Why throw all this money at a new court, when there are already juvenile courts?

A Team for Kids

"This is an approach to not just look at the crime," says Cooper of American University. "It's to look at the underlying problems of the kid."

Sounds like juvenile court. "The juvenile court is supposed to look at each kid and design dispositions to meet their needs," says retired Ft. Lauderdale Juvenile Court Judge Frank Orlando, a director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy. But Juvenile Court Judge John Parnham of Pensacola says the size and makeup of the caseloads has made it impossible for many juvenile courts to carry out that mission.

There is, however, new money and political support for juvenile drug court. "Sometimes when you're trying to get community support, if you wrap it up as something new" you'll be more successful, says Iris Key, manager of substance abuse programs for the judges association. The drug courts are a new package for a juvenile court function that isn't getting adequate resources.

But does that flood of new resources mean more kids will be arrested on drug charges, or be referred to already overburdened treatment programs, because their county has drug courts? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about one-quarter of eighth-graders and half of 12th-graders report having tried marijuana in the past year. That's nearly 1 million and 2 million kids, respectively - an enormous number of candidates for drug courts, which typically take kids who are charged with nonviolent crimes, are using drugs, and are referred by judges, prosecutors or probation officers.

The courts are too young to analyze whether they are drawing kids who might not otherwise face a judge. But American University says 77 percent of the youths entering drug courts have been arrested at least twice before, usually for crimes such as burglary, car theft, shoplifting and drug possession.

The kids come in cynical veterans of the juvenile justice system. "I thought it was pointless," says Thomas, 16, who started dealing drugs in Phoenix at age 11. "I'd been on probation before," once for curfew violation and once for drug possession. This time he'd been arrested for drug and firearm possession, and faced prison if he didn't accept probation with Foreman's drug court. Gainsborough of the Sentencing Project says that for youths who would be arrested anyway, "We'd rather they be in drug court than behind bars."

Thomas figured he'd go through the motions. He signed a contract submitting to drug tests three times a week and group therapy twice a week. He agreed to court appearances once a week. Foreman imposes other conditions, such as passing all classes in school, obeying curfews and, as one youth put it, "staying away from my homeboys."

Then the work starts.

Before the kids come to court each Friday afternoon, Foreman sits at the center of a semicircle of odd bedfellows: a prosecutor, a public defender, a private defense attorney, a therapist, a probation officer and a probation "surveillance" officer. In traditional court, several of these characters would cooperate like pit bulls; here they team up to develop a recovery plan for each youth. The plans take about a year, and include some unconventional assignments: a boy with artistic talent was sent to an arts program; an academically gifted kid was assigned to tutor other youths in the program; kids are routinely assigned to activities at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix.

"What we try to do with each of these kids is find what they are strong at" and build on it, Foreman says.

"A strengths-based theme is crucial," says Darryl Turpin, who oversees treatment at drug courts as field coordinator for the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts. But it hasn't been easy to sell some of the players on that concept. The strengths-based talk initially "gave me the willies," admits Sharon Chatman of the Santa Clara County, Calif., district attorney's office. "As a prosecutor, I saw offenders as villains. ... We didn't know they had any strengths."

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Las Vegas knows. Its clubs house day treatment programs for juvenile drug court, help the youths fulfill community service agreements and provide alternative education for those who have been suspended from school.

The courts provide a window to introduce kids to youth development programs, says Susie Miller of the nonprofit Aspen Community Services, which runs the treatment programs. Although they initially go to the clubs by judicial order, "Once they get there, they start looking around and say, 'This is not so bad.'"

Drug courts also refer kids to some 400 YMCAs around the country, such as in Nashville and San Diego. The Jacksonville court links kids to the local Cultural Council for painting, drama, sculpting, theater and music. In Santa Clara, the drug court team learned that one youth wanted to be a fireman - so his program included 100 hours of volunteer work at a fire station. "He blossomed," Chatman says.

And as kids progress, they are rewarded with everything from curfew rollbacks and less drug testing to CD certificates and (in Los Angeles) tickets to Magic Mountain theme park. Those who stumble can get anything from book reports to community service before the hammer of detention falls. In Jacksonville, Fla., community service includes shoveling feces at an animal shelter. "They hate that part," says Jacksonville Judge Brian Davis.

Such decisions are crafted by the treatment team. By the time the 14 kids on the docket arrive in Foreman's Phoenix court, the team has reviewed each one's progress and reached a consensus on who will be detained, who will be rewarded, and who will graduate.

Parent Problems

Sonya sits before Foreman. "She comes from a multi-generational substance abusing family," the judge says outside the courtroom. Her mother's drug charges are not unusual: In juvenile drug courts that check for crimes in the parents' backgrounds, 75 percent of the kids have a parent with an arrest or conviction record, according to a 1999 OJJ report, "Juvenile and Family Drug Courts: An Overview."

Yet drug court administrators have concluded that parental involvement is vital, maybe even necessary. Parnham calls this one of the key lessons in the difference between adult and juvenile drug court: Adults can change their home environment or move out, but kids usually cannot. In Pensacola, the court restructured its program last fall to focus on family services rather than on youth treatment. The reason: Recidivism among drug court youths was lower than for regular juvenile court, but higher than in adult drug court. "We really weren't seeing the kinds of results we were hoping for," says Delivian Davis, the family intervention specialist for Pensacola's Circuit Court.

Such intervention specialists (who resemble the family preservation workers often involved in abuse and neglect cases) are now the cornerstone of the Pensacola court. They visit the kids' homes and schools to identify problems in the families, reduce risk factors and build on positive elements in the youths' lives.

What if the parents don't cooperate? Judge Davis of Jacksonville says threatening contempt charges has always brought them around. Raleigh, N.C., Judge Russell Sherrill locked up one parent for contempt. But most judges don't want to pull that trigger. It would do no good, Foreman says, to put a troubled youth's only live-in parent in jail, or to throw the kid into foster care. The judges have to depend on persuasion or work around the youth's family.

When Sonya entered Foreman's drug court in 1998, she had been living with a succession of relatives, none of whom were positive influences, the judge says. When she got pregnant, Foreman's team got scared; it enrolled her in Success House, a home for pregnant teens. Foreman told the girl that if she used drugs while pregnant, he'd move to take her baby.

Now in court, she tells Foreman about how she gets up at 6 a.m. to work at Jack in the Box, then goes to school, and expects to give birth in two months. Her drug tests are negative.

"Are you the same Sonya who was in here last year?" Foreman says. "The same Sonya who was having trouble getting up at 10?"

The girl smiles and nods while the kids on the benches behind her laugh. Foreman promotes her to "stage three," closer to graduation. "We're proud of you," he says.

Half the kids win such praise. Garrett does not.

No Rock Bottom

Garrett has committed only minor offenses - truancy, shoplifting and drug possession - but "he has significant long-term potential to do serious things," Foreman says. "Behind his deferential, timid little-boy demeanor is a lot of anger." His biological father is a long-term drug user, and he fights with his stepfather.

Aside from smoking marijuana recently, Garrett missed his last therapy session and didn't come home for four days. "Your actions are not the actions of someone who's serious about drug court," Foreman says. "Your actions say you're blowing this off."

The problem is motivation, and it's another big difference from adult drug court. The adults often come in after years (even decades) of heavy drug use, lost jobs, shattered families and prior treatment failures. They've hit rock bottom.

Not so with youths. "Most of the kids we had were not addicted," Parnham says. Drug use "is more of a behavior problem." Without overwhelming motivation to change that behavior, 25 percent of the kids in drug court don't make it to graduation, according to American University. Many are referred back to juvenile court for sentencing.

Foreman hopes to motivate Garrett with the fear of "a long term commitment" if he flunks drug court. On the same day that Garrett gets shackles, two other boys get shorter stints in detention for positive drug tests. Foreman weighs each slip-up, such as missing therapy, against progress, like attending school and doing well at home.

Now sitting before Foreman is Thomas - the young drug dealer who once looked like a sure failure.

Turn Around

Thomas says he made as much as $4,000 a week selling marijuana, and planned to fake his way through drug court. But the boy couldn't fake his urine; he got detention for positive drug tests. During his treatment, he got arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Yet Thomas had an advantage that none of the other 50 kids who've gone through Foreman's court have had, the judge says: A mother and father who got active in his treatment. They attended the weekly group therapy for parents, brought food to the monthly parent/kid potlucks, and helped enforce Foreman's rules for the boy's home and school life. Active party hosts, they drained their home of alcohol. Before that, Thomas says, "Anything I wanted, I got my hands on."

The boy says he learned to "enjoy the groups. I knew they were there to help me." His repeated visits to detention scared him; he didn't want to spend years locked up. The high school dropout enrolled in a GED program.

Thomas now sits before the judge, his mother and father on each side. "This is the beginning of the rest of your life," Foreman says. He issues the same warning given to the day's four other graduates: "You are not cured. You can relapse at any time."

"I just want to thank you for not letting me get away with anything," Thomas says.

"I've been hard on you because I've sentenced too many adults to prison," Foreman says. "Hundreds. I'm tired of it.

"Probation terminated."