Juvenile offenders to meet the judges in drug court

"Instead of sending kids who commit crimes to detention and being done with them, Island County Superior Court judges will spend a year getting to know some of them.The juvenile offenders who qualify for an innovative drug court, which is set to begin this fall, will have to go before judges Alan Hancock or Vickie Churchill once every week or two for an entire year to get their lives scrutinized.Over that year they will also have to complete an intensive treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse, regularly meet with a juvenile probation officer and submit to urinary analyses.The carrot at the end of the string for the juvenile, says county Juvenile and Family Court Services Administrator Mike Merringer, is that the crime is taken off his or her record if the program is completed to the judge's satisfaction.Merringer recently proposed the drug court program to county commissioners, the judges and prosecutors and got unanimous support all around, which he admits is a rarity in county politics and policies. The program does come with a price tag. It will cost about $120,000 a year, but will be funded from a variety of sources, including state funds, grants, the Becca Bill court settlement and even Medicaid.A juvenile probation officer will dedicate his or her time to intensive supervision of the drug court cases, which will be limited to 20 kids at any one time. The county is contracting with Oak Harbor-based Recovery Center for drug and alcohol counseling.Merringer said he hopes to get the drug court up and running within a month, but first everyone involved has to get together and set the parameters and policies. He said it will be up to the prosecutor to decide who and what types of offenses can qualify for the program.The program probably won't just be for those who commit drug-related offenses, but will extend to other crimes committed by juveniles with substance abuse problems. The offender will have to go through a drug and alcohol assessment beforehand, Merringer said, and then enter into a contract which defines the treatment, testing and meetings with the judges.Although it's new for Island County, drug courts have been successfully running in many counties in the state and nation for years. There's even a National Association of Drug Court Professionals.The philosophy behind the drug court, Merringer said, is that drug and alcohol abuse is often at the root of many of the crimes young people commit. Treating a chemical dependency problem is often more effective than just punishing a child for the crime.Drug and alcohol involvement can affect decision making in all aspects of a child's life, he said. I anticipate this will be a very popular program. Kids and parents are always concerned that a mistake a kid makes will follow them the rest of their lives.The program is also a benefit to the community. Drug courts reduce the re-offense rate among drug offenders by 16 percent, according to statistics from the Washington State Institute for Public Policies.The institute estimates a savings of $4,900 in subsequent criminal justice costs for each drug court participant. In a county where youth crimes continue to rise, the program could save thousands of dollars a year.Merringer said he thinks the program is effective for two reasons: It addresses the drug problem and it puts the juvenile in constant contact with positive adults.The judges' role in the drug court, he said, will be to rule on any violations and basically put the juvenile on the spot.Hopefully, the judges will also get the rare opportunity to be cheerleaders, Merringer said, handing down compliments and encouragement instead of punishment from the bench. "

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