ANNAPOLIS – In an aging Baltimore County courtroom, Judge Kathleen Cox spends alternate Wednesday afternoons dispensing a different kind of justice.
“Tell me you got a job,” she says to one of the teenage boys who appears before her regularly. He tells her he’s been hired by a local supermarket.
Another young man who is struggling with sobriety receives words of encouragement: “Everyone on the treatment team really likes you and wants to see you succeed.”
A third receives a warning that he better start treating his mother better or he will face sanctions, but then the judge tells him she doesn’t want all of his hard work so far to go unrewarded. As he leaves the courtroom he’s applauded and gets to grab a candy bar from a basket full of sweets there to reward good behavior.
The teens who appear in Cox’s courtroom are part of an innovative drug court program where they receive intensive counseling, drug and alcohol treatment and lots of support and encouragement, instead of juvenile detention, for a variety of nonviolent crimes.
The county program, one of four in Maryland, is still in its infancy, opening earlier this year. Baltimore City opened the first juvenile drug court in Maryland in 1997, and was joined by Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties. While all of the drug court programs are fundamentally the same, each one is tailored to the community’s needs.
Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties expect their programs to be running by the end of the year. Another five Maryland counties have courts on the drawing board.
Maryland also boasts five adult drug courts, five more in the planning stages.
The 11 boys in the Baltimore County program were referred to the drug court after an evaluation determined they have a substance abuse problem and need treatment.
The voluntary drug court program involves constant monitoring, random drug tests, semi-weekly court appearances and counseling at least three times a week with a team of treatment professionals. There are four treatment phases and to advance through them, the teenagers, ages 14-18, must follow the rules, stay clean and write a paper explaining what they have learned.
The ultimate goal is to help these teens become sober, self-sufficient members of society and to try to ensure that they never appear in a courtroom of any kind again.
“When the kids get into the program they are really relieved, but then after about a month into it when the visions of the Hickey School (the state juvenile detention facility in Baltimore County) start to fade, they realize it is not as easy as they thought it would be,” Cox said.
The program uses a system of rewards and sanctions to keep the teens on track. After completing each phase, they are rewarded with a certificate of completion, a prize – currently a $10 Best Buy gift certificate – candy and a round of applause.
“The applause, gift certificates and lots of praise – we all try to provide as much support and encouragement as we can,” said Angela Shroyer, Baltimore County Drug Court coordinator.
If the youths veer off track, they can face sanctions, including strict curfews, house arrest, more frequent drug tests and potential incarceration.
According to the National Drug Court Clearinghouse at American University, the first juvenile drug court opened on March 1, 1995, in Clark County, Nev., and now there are 285 juvenile drug courts nationwide, with another 110 in the planning stages.
While there are no hard statistics on the juvenile programs available yet, proponents say drug courts save money and free jail space.
According to the National Drug Court Institute, the average cost of incarceration for adult drug-using offenders is between $20,000 and $50,000 per inmate/per year. Drug courts run about $2,500 to $4,000 annually. In addition the recidivism rate for adults who complete a drug court program is between 4 and 29 percent compared to 48 percent for those who don’t participate.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich support the drug court program and has said that he would like to take the program statewide.
When other programs were suffering budget cuts, the Department of Juvenile Services received $750,000 for the development and expansion of the drug court program.
Even so, the program depends on grants to survive.
“We are essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul right now,” Shroyer said. “We are working on a limited budget borrowing from all the different agencies involved.”
The Baltimore County program recently received two grants, one to pay for a dedicated public defender and another from the Office of Crime Control and Prevention for Shroyer’s position.
Parents have said the drug court program is amazing because it works, and the increased attention that the court pays to the teens is just one of the reasons.
If the teens were not in the drug court program, the court system would only see them two times, Cox said. If they are successful in the program and complete it in a year, Cox will see these teens 18-20 times.
“I will spend more time with them then I would even if they were to re-offend,” she said. “But I think the time spent is worth it and, hopefully, none of these kids will ever be back in court.”