Washington Post

Increase in Offenses Prompts Creation of Juvenile Drug Court

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St. Mary’s Starts Alternative System for Troubled Youths

By Michael Amon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2004; Page C05

In the early 1970s, when Marvin S. Kaminetz was a juvenile court master in St. Mary’s County, he could count on one hand the number of juveniles charged with drug offenses in a year. “There were maybe two or three,” he said.

“Now we see that many every week,” said Kaminetz, the chief Circuit Court judge for St. Mary’s. From 1992 to 2002, the number of youths arrested on drug charges nearly tripled in the rural but quickly growing Southern Maryland county of 90,000.

In response, St. Mary’s and state officials are creating a juvenile drug court, an alternative justice system that has become popular in the Washington area and across the country. Instead of being put on probation or confined to a juvenile detention center, youths in drug courts are sentenced to intensive therapy and strict supervision and can have their convictions expunged if they adhere to the rules.

On Feb. 5, three teenagers will go before Kaminetz in the court’s first session. Each will be a youth who has already been convicted of a drug-related crime in regular juvenile court. Kaminetz, along with a prosecutor, defense attorney and a probation officer, will work out a treatment program tailored to the youth and his situation.

Generally, each youth will be under house arrest and must attend school or work for the first month, Kaminetz said. The youth will meet with a probation officer once week, appear before Kaminetz twice a month, submit urine samples twice a week and see a counselor at least once a week. And parents must attend the training sessions.

“It’s like putting these kids in a full-court press,” Kaminetz said. “We are going to be in their face.”

First implemented in big cities, youth drug courts are now found in suburbs and rural communities. Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Anne Arundel and Howard counties have all started juvenile drug courts in the last three years. And Prince William, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties plan to begin programs soon, officials said.

“To start a drug court, you have to admit you have a problem,” said Patty Gilbertson, president of the Virginia Drug Court Association. “Some rural and suburban communities are now taking off their blinders and addressing the problem.”

In St. Mary’s, youths who follow the rules will be rewarded with fewer restrictions and gift certificates, Kaminetz said. At the end of the program, which can last from six months to a year, those who successfully complete it graduate and can apply to have their juvenile records cleared.

But those who test positive for drugs or violate conditions of their probation will have to start over and could be forced to spend a weekend in a juvenile detention center or be thrown out of the program, officials said.

Joe Stanalonis, the assistant state’s attorney assigned to the program, said at first he had reservations about “coddling” drug users instead of punishing them.

“But now I don’t see how they are going to be getting a break. The level of supervision and the things they have to do is actually more onerous than in the regular system,” Stanalonis said.

St. Mary’s officials trace the county’s drug problem to the mid-1990s, shortly after its biggest employer, Patuxent River Naval Air Station, completed a major expansion that brought in thousands more people. While adult crime decreased in the last decade, youth crime shot up 33 percent, officials said.

Of those arrests, more than a third were on drug charges, and officials estimate about half of the crimes were drug-related, meaning, for example, that a child stole money to buy drugs.

“There are an alarming number of kids who are violating their probation,” Stanalonis said. “Most of them are involved in drugs.”

So, St. Mary’s officials said, they created a court that accepts teenagers convicted of nearly any crime, if they have a drug problem they want treated.

Youths cannot be forced into the drug court, and their parents or guardians must also give consent. Teenagers charged with dealing drugs or violent crimes will not be accepted.

Officials said they hope the program can be as successful as the juvenile drug court in Anne Arundel, which has about 40 participants and has graduated six teenagers in two years. The Anne Arundel program can last up to 18 months, and most therapy sessions are done in the youth’s home and include the offender’s parents, said John Fullmer, the court’s administrator.

The intense supervision, regular drug-testing and numerous therapy sessions are expensive. In Anne Arundel, the $400,000 budget is covered through a multitude of grants. In St. Mary’s, the state is picking up the tab for new probation officers, and a drug treatment clinic with a grant will pay for the therapy.

But, said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Martin P. Welch Sr., who runs the juvenile court division there, “The cost . . . is far less than placing a child in a committed [detention] center outside of the community.”

Whether the juvenile drug courts accomplish their long-term goal — reducing drug-related crime and recidivism — remains unclear, juvenile justice experts said.

Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in California, said drug courts are little more than “the latest fad” that spend enormous resources on first-offenders and others who need it the least.

“There’s this myth out there that if we get to the kids early, they won’t show up later on,” Macallair said. “That’s just not how it works. We end up absorbing kids into the system who wouldn’t have come back.”

Jeffrey A. Butts, director of youth justice research at the Urban Institute in Washington, said juvenile drug courts have been a modest success. “They are not a magical solution,” Butts said. “But they do reduce drugs, crime and recidivism enough to justify spending money on the policy.”

After years of watching children who were addicted to drugs march into his courtroom, Kaminetz says any progress would be welcome.

“I’ve always felt we could do more,” he said.

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Copyright 2004 The Washington Post