Juvenile drug court program addressing growing need

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

According to court officials, there are 24 juveniles enrolled in the Knox County Juvenile Drug Court Program for various drug-related crimes. This represents the highest level of participation at any one time since the program’s inception.

Created by Juvenile Judge James M. Ronk in March 2001, the drug court program was designed to specifically address the intervention needs of the growing body of Knox County teens exhibiting addictive or potentially addictive drug-related behavior.

“Throughout the time I’ve been judge, there have been teen drinking parties and smoking marijuana,” said Ronk. “[At the time], I wasn’t happy with our response. We were looking around for evidence-based programs that offered the opportunity for more effective interventions.”

That same year, the Ohio Supreme Court established its own office to assist local communities in establishing drug court programs. The first drug court program entered Ohio in 1995; today there are 28 juvenile courts throughout the state and nearly 2,000 programs nationwide.

According to officials from Coshocton County, their juvenile drug court program has graduated 22 youths since its inception in December 2002. There are three youths currently enrolled. Dan Wallace, court program administrator for Morrow County, said that Morrow’s juvenile program began in April 2001 and has processed approximately 100 teens since then, with 14 currently enrolled.

“It’s the best thing we’ve found to help combat recidivism,” said Wallace.

The Knox County program accepts youths ages 14 to 18 and was designed, according to a mission statement, “for those juveniles who have been involved in criminal activity and are identified as having a significant drug and alcohol problem.”

Melissa Body, adolescent program coordinator for the Knox County Freedom Center and liaison to the drug court program, called the high number of youths in the program an identification issue.

“It’s not so much that [it’s more of a problem],” said Body. “It’s that we’re identifying kids more. We really try to intervene before there’s a big problem. We choose kids that we feel have potential and they’re headed down the wrong path.”

The court proceedings are unlike any other program in the judicial system. To enroll a child in the program, parents are required to co-sign a contract. Juvenile Magistrate Jeffrey C. Williams said it’s a way to hold parents accountable for their children’s behavior.

“If [we determine] the parent is not actively participating in the child’s recovery, he or she could be held in contempt,” said Williams. “We’ve had parents show up for [weekly] court intoxicated before. Once, it happened twice, and he was found in immediate contempt and went to jail.”

“Parents are required to set a standard in their home. Drugs or alcohol present hinders their recovery from their addiction. Kids have asked for their parents to be [drug] screened, too,” said Program Administrator Angie Webb.

Williams said parents usually end up getting the help they need after watching their child’s progress through the program.

Drug Court Probation Officer Misty Jenkins said the court program is an intensive probation intervention.

“It’s not just sanctions but rewards [for good behavior],” she said. “We’ve found that five positive rewards to one negative sanction is the ratio when [the child’s] behavior begins to change.”

Participants are required to undergo individual and group counseling, home inspections, routine court hearings, 150 hours of community service, scheduled exercise regiments, monthly family activities and a variety of other conditions that vary from child to child.

“It’s based on the idea that these families are not always educated in how to interact with each other,” said Webb. “We teach about them about doing other things than are drug related.”

Webb added that the scheduled family activities include picnics, planting trees, an annual chili cook-off, basketball and soup kitchens. Without a doubt, she said, the favorite this year was pumpkin carving.

“I don’t think any of these kids have ever carved a pumpkin,” said Webb.

Sanctions are handed down for any number of offenses, including missing school, missing a random drug test, missing a scheduled solo or family activity or violating curfews. A sanction could be anything from writing essays to an evening in Podville, forced bike riding, house arrest, community service or detention.

As far as rewards go, well-behaved candidates receive “drug court bucks” to be reimbursed later in the program for extra privileges or prizes. According to one court official, volunteers from the community have donated prizes such as sports equipment or movie tickets on which youths can redeem their bucks.

Williams said sanctions are catered to the individual.

“We try to take a holistic approach to the kids,” said Williams. “We look at the whole kid, the whole family.”

At a recent weekly drug court hearing, one 16-year-old boy who had been missing school was warned by the judge that each day he missed would result in one day’s detention and he would have his guitar taken away.

The nine-month program consists of four separate phases, each varying in the intensity level of supervision. A new enrollee is required to attend court once per week, but by the final phase may only need to show up once per month. Throughout the nine months, all enrollees are subjected to drug and alcohol testing several times per week.

“We’re always looking for a new viable alcohol monitor,” said Jenkins. “We found the ankle bracelet was ineffective. Now we have breathalyzers installed on their home telephones and we can actually see a picture of them breathing into the tube. We try to be as vigilant as we can be.”

Jenkins added that they are now able to track the real-time whereabouts of any child through the GPS chips installed in their cell phones.

Body said that in the early days of the program, youths were usually admitted to the program for repeated probation violations related to alcohol and marijuana.

“In the last six months, [prescription drug abuse] has become more of a problem, even with kids already in the program,” she said.

Recent studies conducted by several universities and the Department of Justice have shown that adolescents who successfully complete the program are less likely to commit future crimes and are more likely to stay clean over the years. A DOJ study conducted in Pennsylvania concluded that drug court graduates had a rearrest rate of 5.4 percent, versus a 21.5 percent rearrest rate among the control group. A Southern Methodist University study concluded that for every dollar spent on a drug court, $9.43 in tax dollar savings were realized over a 40-month period.

Special Agent Rich Isaacson of the Drug Enforcement Agency said his agency was in favor of the court program.

“We’re not going to just arrest our way out of the drug problem,” said Isaacson. “We need to look at it from a holistic approach.”

“Overall, I’m happy with the program,” said Ronk. “I’m convinced we’re having a positive impact on these kids. By definition, kids make mistakes. We hopefully plant some seeds that eventually come to fruition. That’s true with about everything we do.”

Webb said the level of success was relative.

“Any time you’re dealing with juveniles you have to judge success differently,” she said.

“When a parent and kid sit down and look at you and say ‘My kid wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for you,’ we call that a success,” said Jenkins. “In the long term, it’s also a real bargain for our community. We give the kids that period of time to give their brain a chance to develop normally as opposed to substance abuse.”

“I wish we could expand to take on kids who are at lesser risk [of addiction],” Ronk added. “Like every other agency, we’re limited by financial and human resources. We hope to add another probation officer soon so we can positively impact even more kids.”

For Jenkins, her definition of success is simple.

“I don’t have a dead kid yet,” she said.

source: Mount Vernon News