Judge keeps juvenile drug court friendly

Island County Judge Alan Hancock speaks to a teenager in juvenile drug court as a court clerk watches. - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Island County Judge Alan Hancock speaks to a teenager in juvenile drug court as a court clerk watches.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Judge Alan Hancock chatted with a teenaged boy about music theory, schoolwork and the divorce of the boy’s parents in open court on a recent Thursday.

He later called a girl on his speaker phone and, while the others in court listened, spoke to her cheerfully about her baby, her efforts to get a driver’s license and her 12-step treatment program.

Hancock ended each conversation with a happy, “Keep up the good work.”

These friendly talks between judge and teenager are part of a new program designed to help young people who have committed criminal offenses kick their drug or alcohol problem.

It is called the juvenile drug court. A year-long program involving a lot of personal attention from juvenile justice officials, it provides each juvenile offender with tailor-made requirements. The kids have to appear before Judge Hancock regularly to discuss their lives. They also have to go to drug treatment, keep in contact with their probation officer and submit to regular urinalysis.

In return, teenagers who complete the program get their crimes removed from their records.

So far, the program has been a success. The drug court had its first graduation last month. Hancock said the teenage boy he talked with that Thursday had changed his attitude on drugs and “turned around 180 percent.”

“He became an advocate of living a drug-free lifestyle,” Hancock said. “We are very pleased that we were able to help him make that turnaround.”

The four other teenagers currently in the program have shown much progress and have stayed clean and sober, with only one relapse.

In court, the teenagers seemed genuinely excited to talk to Hancock about their lives and struggles.

Mimi Buescher, a Coupeville attorney with Platt and Arndt, represents the juveniles in the drug court. She said the kids themselves think it is a “fabulous” program. The secret of the program’s success, she said, is positive reinforcement.

“The most positive aspect, in my opinion, is the notion of treating the juveniles therapeutically versus punitively,” Buescher said. “It goes back to the idea of listening to a kid with a problem instead of hammering him or her for some sort of violation.”

Channing Gredvig, the drug court probation officer for Juvenile Court Services, said a kid who commits a crime that is somehow drug-related — whether directly or indirectly — may qualify for the program. They have to volunteer and go through an alcohol and drug evaluation to determine if they are candidates for drug court.

Gredvig said the idea behind the program, which is based on similar programs in other counties, is that drug abuse is often at the root of juvenile crime. Helping kids kick the habit, he said, should help them stay out of the court system.

Once in the program, a juvenile enters into a contract with the court to go to treatment, come to court regularly and submit to drug testing. In addition, each juvenile may have other requirements to help them stay on the right track. These may include not missing school, getting a job or following their parents’ household rules.

Gredvig interviews the teens and their families and stays in close touch with them as they go through the program. The drug court is run in phases. In the first six months, the juveniles have to appear in drug court every other Thursday. After that, they only have to appear once a month for the last six months of the program.

Gredvig, Buescher and Island County Deputy Prosecutor Margot Carter meet with Hancock in his chambers for at least a half an hour before each hearing to go over each juvenile’s history and to keep current on their lives. Then Hancock goes over the information with the kids in court.

“The key to the success of the drug court is the judge’s investment and interest in them,” Gredvig said.

Gredvig said the teenagers in the program reveal the diversity of the ways and reasons kids with many different backgrounds get into drugs and alcohol.

One girl who used speed because she felt she had a weight problem. A boy used marijuana constantly and another drank heavily. Another girl was into shooting up heroin and cocaine, but wanted to quit when she got pregnant.

Three of the juveniles were arrested for minor-in-possession offenses while one was facing a car theft charge.

“The idea is that if a child was free from drug and alcohol they may not be making the decisions they are making,” Gredvig said,

Hancock said his only concern about the program is the number of kids involved. While there are only four teenagers in juvenile drug court now, he wants to have at least 15.

Buescher said the low numbers of kids involved is because of the newness of the year-old program. She said there will be more involvement in the future. In addition, she said she hopes the community will take an interest in the program and show support.

“These kids really do deserve positive reinforcement,” she said. “This program is a great opportunity for the community to get involved with juveniles. ... the community really could step up to the plate.”

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