Juvenile drug courts are not just for big counties

Dean (not his real name) entered Guadalupe County’s juvenile drug court when he was 16 because he was caught with marijuana. He was first placed into the deferred prosecution program (DPP for short), which usually lasts six months, but from the beginning he showed significant resistance to changing his behaviors or making improvements to his life. He continued non-compliance with his DPP written agreement and kept using drugs.
    The drug court team (made up of a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a probation officer, a mental health professional, an administrative assistant, a school district representative, and community members) determined that Dean was not being successful in the DPP and should be terminated from the program. The team recommended that Dean be referred to court for adjudication and that he would be a good candidate for the Post Adjudication Drug Court (PADC) program instead, so he was adjudicated for marijuana possession and at the disposition hearing ordered into PADC until his 18th birthday.
    Dean’s first three months of the program were positive and successful. He stayed clean, attended school, and was cooperative at home. Then things changed: For the next eight months Dean struggled and could not stay away from drugs on his own. He had tried medication for depression and anxiety in the past but never stuck with it. He believed smoking marijuana was an easier fix. He continued to test positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound in cannabis that causes a euphoric high. He started giving up on himself and was causing strain in his family too.
    Then one day, something finally clicked, and Dean realized that this was not the life that he wanted for himself or his family. He knew he needed help. Dean was facing the choice of either substance abuse treatment or termination from the drug court. If he was unsuccessfully terminated, the Guadalupe County Attorney’s Office would proceed with his case through the regular juvenile court system. If that happened, Dean would have been looking at a juvenile record.
    At his next appointment, Dean asked the drug court probation officer to get him into a treatment program, and the drug court team supported this decision. He spent the next 90 days in a residential substance-abuse treatment program outside of our community, where he learned his triggers, as well as tools to fight these temptations and coping mechanisms. While in treatment, Dean graduated from high school early, and he made plans to go to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) school, work on his family connections, and build stronger positive relationships in his life. Upon completing the 90-day program, he returned home to his family and stayed off of drugs. He also completed a 30-day aftercare program with counseling. During that month, Dean was required to meet with his probation officer once a week and was also given a weekly drug test. He went on to graduate from the program exactly one month after his return from treatment (which happened to be his 18th birthday).
    Dean is an example for our county’s drug court team, his family, other juveniles in the drug court, and even himself that a person can get clean, stay clean, and focus on the things that really matter. He turned his life around with the help of the Guadalupe County Specialized Treatment Options Program (STOP) Juvenile Drug Court, and he is now on track for a successful, crime-free, drug-free life.

The STOP Juvenile Drug Court
The Guadalupe County Juvenile Board established the STOP Juvenile Drug Court in 2005 with the approval of a grant from the Office of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division. The idea for the program came from now-retired County Court-at-Law and Juvenile Court Judge Linda Jones. Judge Jones identified juveniles who appeared before her with substance abuse problems and wanted to provide services to them through an alternative venue (that is, drug court). Judge Jones was the Juvenile Board Chair at the time and instructed juvenile services staff to research and apply for the original grant, which the juvenile board and commissioners court supported.
    The court is meant for juveniles who are recommended for the program by either the prosecutor or probation officer. Juveniles charged with violent offenses or drug manufacturing or delivery are barred from participation in the court. What we look for is whether an offense is alcohol- or drug-related or if the juvenile was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense. If he was, he is automatically assigned to the drug court’s probation officer to determine eligibility. The juvenile is then given a Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) assessment, which identifies individuals with a high probability of substance abuse. The referred juveniles who score high on the SASSI and are willing to participate in the drug court qualify for the program. The juvenile is then staffed by the entire juvenile drug court team to determine if he is appropriate. The court has two tracks, a pre-adjudication deferred prosecution program (DPP) and a post-adjudication drug court (PADC).
    A major difference between drug court and the regular juvenile docket is that the entire team participates in the process for drug court. The team meets monthly to staff the juvenile drug court cases, which means that the entire team discusses each child’s progress as well as his home life and grades, attendance, and behavior in school. Then the team decides whether the juvenile needs help in any of these areas and what the help should be. For example, if the juvenile is doing poorly in school, do we need to secure a tutor? Or if he is having trouble concentrating, does he need an evaluation to see if medication would help? If the juvenile is not attending school, we find out why. If it’s because the juvenile isn’t getting enough sleep, do we need to work with the parents to create a sleep schedule or a specific bedtime? Does the juvenile need extra help at school (such as a special needs program, a limited schedule, a work-school combination, or even a GED program)?  
    Most juveniles in the drug court also participate in individual and family counseling and have psychiatric evaluations and medication management. The team works with the juveniles in every aspect of their lives, helping them learn social and other skills to improve their lives and their overall well-being so that they will not to go back to using drugs. Following each staffing, the juvenile and his parents are required to attend review hearings to discuss their status with the team members throughout all phases of the program.
    Another big difference is that upon successful completion of drug court, the court used to pay the defense attorney to apply for sealing, the two-year waiting period for misdemeanors was waived, and waiting until the age of 19 for felonies was waived. These benefits no longer exist under the latest legislation, and the defense attorney on the team files the paperwork to seal the original charge and represents the juvenile at the hearing to seal. An additional difference is that the drug court follows the recommended guidelines and best practices based on the research by the National Drug Court Institute and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, focusing on strength-based services that consider a balance of rewards and sanctions for compliance with the program’s expectations.

Small-county challenges
We experience challenges in different areas of the program because we’re a smaller county. For example, as far as the administration of the program, there are limitations on the numbers of drug court team members who can come from our community. While urban centers have infrastructures within the community that fully support all aspects of juvenile justice, small and medium-size cities often rely on the same people to wear multiple hats—there simply aren’t many others wanting to work on the project. Some defense attorneys support the program by serving juveniles in the drug court, but they are also representing other youth so they cannot dedicate themselves full-time to the specialty court.
    Likewise, our mental health providers end up playing multiple roles while serving our juveniles. As in many Texas communities, we don’t have enough people to provide substance-abuse services to the juvenile offenders who need them. Our county, for example, does not have access to a child psychiatrist, whereas nearby Bexar County (home of San Antonio) does. We also experience economies of scale different from larger communities. While our population may be smaller than an urban or large county, families still need services to participate in the drug court.
    There is no shortage of juveniles with drug or alcohol problems, and there hasn’t been since the inception of the juvenile drug court. The population of the program varies: We have had as many as 20 and as few as six youth in drug court at a time. Currently, we have eight in the court. Our disqualifiers—mainly that we don’t accept juveniles who have committed violent offenses—have limited whom we can accept into the juvenile drug court.
    Initially the program was fully funded by a grant from the Governor’s Office. That grant requires a 10-percent local match, and our county’s juvenile board has always included this match in its budget, and with support of both the juvenile board and commissioners court, the grant has been submitted for renewal year after year. Funding cuts over the 12 years of the program’s existence have reduced the number of placements paid out of the grant annually. These cuts will also reduce the grant-funded staff from two to one in the near future. Functions of the lost staffer will have to be absorbed by other people, giving everyone more work without additional compensation. If grant funding ever falls through, the plan would likely be to approach the commissioners court or juvenile board for continued funding.

Benefits of the court
One of the benefits of the court is it allows the drug court team to provide services to juveniles without criminalizing substance-abuse behaviors. This level of intervention reduces recidivism based on substance abuse without advancing a juvenile farther into the justice system.  Research indicates that the farther a juvenile enters into the juvenile justice system, the higher the financial cost and the higher the recidivism rate.1 This alternative court has the authority to address the juvenile’s risks and needs and move him out of our system as soon as possible so that he can return to being (or become) a productive citizen.
    When the late Professor Robert Dawson first authored the Juvenile Justice Code in the early 1990s, he helped to create an alternative to the Penal Code to treat juveniles differently from adults and remove the “taint of criminality”2 from the juvenile justice system. Juvenile drug courts are a progression of that ideal, through which many more alternative courts have been implemented to include veterans courts, mental health courts, and family courts. All of these specialty courts serve populations with cost-effective strategies to allow citizens to remain in their counties and become successful without the involvement of law enforcement. Guadalupe County’s STOP program boasts over 200 successful graduates since its inception, with only 38 re-offending since 2005. Of those re-offenders, 14 were new juvenile cases, and 24 were new adult cases.3
    Anyone interested in starting a drug court in your own county should first talk to the local community (the defense bar, judiciary, juvenile probation, mental health professionals, and school district representatives) to determine if this type of alternative juvenile court would receive the support that it needs from all of the key players. We would also recommend going to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals website, www .nadcp.org, for free technical assistance in starting and developing a juvenile drug court. We truly see that juvenile justice is cost-effective—funding for it (and for juvenile drug courts in particular) is an investment, not an expense. With that as a starting block, support for this investment will not only save juveniles’ lives but also save money in the long term by keeping these youngsters out of the adult criminal justice system.

Conclusion
In summation, juvenile drug courts offer treatment and support that juveniles require in all areas of their lives, including substance-abuse treatment, mental health, family relationships, dealing with stress, anger management, encouragement, mentorship, and coping with life’s difficulties. With this much-needed guidance, many juveniles are diverted from the criminal justice system for life.

Endnotes

1  “Improving the Effectiveness of Juvenile Justice Programs: A new Perspective on Evidence-Based Practice.”  Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, Working Across Systems of Care, Georgetown University.

2 “[T]o remove, where appropriate, the taint of criminality from children committing certain unlawful acts.” Tex. Fam. Code §51.01 (2)(B).

3  We don’t have statistics on recidivism on juveniles with substance abuse who went through a regular docket. They simply don’t exist.