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Courting Success

Program Aims to Build a Future for Juvenile Drug Offenders, One Youth at a Time

By Michael Corbin | Posted 4/25/2001

The eight teenagers look uneasy in dress shirts and loosely knotted neckties as they file into Room 231 of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and hand out programs. City Circuit Court Chief Judge Joseph Kaplan and a battery of senior jurists and political emissaries sit to one side, filling the Shaker-style chairs of the jury box in this room that usually hosts criminal trials. Proud family members and friends pack the gallery. The eight take their place of honor in the front row¨smiling, fidgeting nervously, expectant.

These young men are the fourth and largest graduating class from the Baltimore City Juvenile Drug Court, where a fraction of the 6,000 city juveniles brought up on narcotics-related charges each year come for another crack at the straight and narrow. The statistics--five times as many young African-American males go to jail as go to college--bear out cruel prospects for these boys. Today--graduation day, April 12--may be a defining step toward reversing those odds.

"Here," David Young, the juvenile-court judge who oversees the drug court, says in opening remarks at the ceremony, "is a different story of what can happen to the young men of Baltimore."

Of the program's 18 graduates to date, five are in college, one is a U.S. Marine, and nearly all of the rest are gainfully employed, Young says; only one has slipped back into a drug-riddled netherworld. So the sense of hope permeating the courtroom today is palpable, and for every celebrant here the moment is somehow personal: the recovering addict-turned-counselor, the prosecutor with a drug-addicted sibling, the judges who day after day bear witness to a legal system that for most Baltimore youth is largely ineffective, the families who loved and raised the grads, the friends hoping for a similar break. But mostly the boys.

Started by Kaplan and other Circuit Court judges in 1998 with grants from the U.S. Department of Justice, the drug court is a still-unfolding experiment in a different way of dispensing justice in Baltimore. "Therapeutic justice," Young calls it. Like its counterpart for adult offenders, the juvenile drug court directs nonviolent offenders away from incarceration and toward treatment and intensive, community-based rehabilitation.

Since its inception, the drug court has secured permanent funding through the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)--just shy of $1 million a year. But it remains little used (just 2.5 percent of young drug offenders participate in it) and little known amid the juvenile-justice system's regular menu of overload (57,000 Baltimore hearings a year) and scandal. It is currently open only to male defendants recommended by prosecutors based on a history of nonviolent charges and drug use (youths with handgun or violent-crime charges are ineligible); public defenders interview the candidates, consult with their families, and determine whether they're willing to commit to the program. David Fishkin, chief attorney for the juvenile division of the public defender's office, says the youth referred to drug court have had previous brushes with the system and are at risk of being sent away to a detention facility; drug court, he says, offers them a "second chance" to stay in the community. And not unlike the many 12-step programs out there dealing with addiction, candidates must admit to their offense to be allowed in.

But the ultimate choice to participate remains up to the boys themselves--and few make that choice, Young says, because drug court is "intense, more intense" than incarceration. About 600 are referred to it each year, of whom about 150 enroll, but for various reasons only 110 or so are in it at any given time. (The program is equipped to handle up to 200 participants.) And if past serves as precedent, fewer than a dozen each year will see it through. Most will drop out, violate probation, pick up new charges, or rack up sanctions for noncompliance along the way, forcing a judge to decide whether they should continue in the program or be sent to a detention facility such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County. (If they're 18 or older when they pick up new charges, they could land in the adult system; drug court would no longer be an option.)

The reason so few boys do graduate, Fishkin says, is twofold: "One, we're dealing with a population that has already had some kinds of involvement with [DJJ]. And two, kids may not bottom out as easily [as adults]; children have more of a sense of invulnerability."

Despite its few takers and even fewer successes, those who run the juvenile drug court believe in its ability to change young lives. "We're clearly convinced, based upon those who've graduated--there is little if any recidivism--that the program itself is very, very effective," says Judge Martin Welch, who oversees the Circuit Court's Juvenile Division. "It's pretty clear that this is the most important accomplishment that they've ever achieved. For many of these kids, [graduating drug court] would be the equivalent of a college graduation."

Welch says he and other drug-court officials are reviewing the program for improvements. Whether that means expanding it or not remains up in the air. "Our commitment is as strong as it ever was, but when you get to be three or four years old, you look at [the program] again to see how it can be improved," he says. "One option is to try and get those numbers up."

If the numbers show a program that, so far at least, has made a relatively limited dent in terms of the size of the population it aims to help, administrator Young doesn't consider that the only measure of success. "We don't guarantee results; our job is to give [the boys] a set of tools. Our main goal is sobriety, but we also try to ignite a spark, a sense that life has value, that they can be a contributor," he says. "Their condition ain't their conclusion. I know that's bad English, but your condition ain't your conclusion." Conveying that message alone, he contends, is worthwhile.

Young was tapped by the court to spend six months getting the program off the ground. That was four years ago, and he's still here. The reason is simple: Nearly 9,500 youth were arrested in Baltimore last year and 8,500 of them were charged with crimes, 75 percent of them drug-related, Young says. That's a 13 percent increase from 1999, he says--a problem to which somebody must respond. Young, an ordained minister who himself has lost friends and family to addiction, feels a sense of obligation toward these youth at a time when he feels the community at large is failing them. "We keep talking about, 'Oh, we love our children, children are our future.' But we sure don't act like it," he says. "My job is not just to thump 'em when they do bad, but to hug 'em when they do good. This is therapeutic justice."

Given the high numbers, he's looking into making the drug court mandatory for some juvenile suspects, giving it a broader reach. And Fishkin says he and his staff are considering adjusting the screening criteria to allow more participants into the program. Today's meager enrollment, Young says, is indicative of teenagers' attitudes toward drugs--and the obstacles Baltimore City faces in helping its youth by extension. "They have no responsibilities. They're still at the age where they feel invincible," he says. "They don't understand that [substance abuse] is a disease. Once they get in [here] they think [the program] is a joke, but real quick things start to happen."

The program is nine months long, but most boys stay up to two years; with drug court's mess-up-and-start-over policy, some graduates have logged three. That's two or three years of routine urinalysis, Breathalyzers, curfew compliance, and in-your-face counseling--plus maybe some time viewing the autopsies of young men who didn't make it as far as drug court, or the trials of those for whom the program wasn't an option. "When we took a group down to the medical examiner to see [a] young man who was killed by shotgun blast, we got real focused attention," drug-court counselor John Prince says. The program requires that participants, who range in age from 14 to just under 18, report to the Department of Juvenile Justice's Baltimore digs near the city jail four full days a week and at least one Saturday a month.

But drug court isn't all a test of toughness and Big Brother monitoring. Intensive social services are also part of the drill--job training, GED preparation, counseling sessions with parents. And the graduation ceremony is a testament to the holistic rehabilitation drug court seeks to provide. Public defenders and prosecutors alike are here, praising the program and the participants whose fates they'd otherwise be arguing over. The adversarial model of the trial is set aside in favor of a shared goal: keeping kids out of lock-up and giving them tools to make a better life.

That commitment comes through in the testimony of the graduation speakers. Assistant State's Attorney Dawn Jones talks about her own brother's struggle with substance abuse. "I'm keeping this real here," she tells the graduates. "I know what you've been through and I know what you will face." George Epps, aka "Blue"--the west-side addict whose own drug- and crime-plagued life was portrayed in the book and TV miniseries The Corner--also weighs in with parting advice. Now a counselor working with the drug court, Epps assures the young men that life after today won't be easy.

"What is easy is standing on the corner, smoking a blunt, copping a 40. The scariest thing in life is change. I know," Epps says. "Your life has been fast. But you got to slow your roll. There's folks out there who are making bets that you won't make it. I'm 51 years old and have had 30 years of addiction. I wish there had been a drug court in my time. You have other options than the street or jail. Now go take them."

But before they do, the graduates relay their stories and praise those who have helped propel them toward today. Their voices crack as they address the assembled.

Terry thanks teacher Steve Mendoza for getting him a job at United Parcel Service. (Drug-court officials asked that graduates' last names not be published, given their status as juveniles.) Charles, whose criminal behavior made him the target of a drive-by shooting, accepts his diploma shyly and, in a soft voice, thanks Young for "giving me another chance in life." David asks his father to come forward and reads him a poem of thanks. The older man's chest heaves as he listens, tears rolling down his cheeks; father and son embrace and the room erupts in an ovation. Then Michael, the graduate the others nicknamed "Philosopher," talks about his lessons learned, the change he's undergone, and his plans for the future.

For Michael, who landed his first criminal conviction for grand auto theft, breaking the law had no consequences and beating the system was easy. Until he got arrested with cocaine, that is. He chose drug court because it allowed him to live at home rather than at a detention facility, but he misjudged the rigor of the program and its staff; this piece of the system, he found, was a tough one to play.

"This is the type of probation that every juvenile delinquent needs--the type that has people who care, the type that enforces what is said to be the law, the type that teaches life skills," he tells the graduation crowd. "It's my turn to put what I've learned to work."

Asked after the ceremony how he acquired his nickname, Michael shrugs. "I guess 'cause I read so much. I read everything. You know what I'm reading right now? I'm reading a lot of real-estate books. After I get out of here," he says, with an arm sweeping across Room 231 and a voice exuding streetwise sureness, "I'm going to work on fixing up houses in this city. I read that there is only one black man who really owns property in downtown Baltimore. I'm going to do my best to make it two. I'm going to own Baltimore."

News editor Molly Rath contributed to this article.

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