Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : May 2007

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Juvenile Drug Court Offers Different View from Bench

The distance between a defendant and judge is often greater than the 20 feet separating the bench from the seated accused. As years of objections, jury selections, witnesses, state’s attorneys and court reporters parade through each judges’ mind, the faces staring at some judges become as distinctive as the design on their robes. Yet, the Juvenile Drug Court, operating in 13 of Maryland’s counties and Baltimore City, has allowed the judges to establish a firm bond between themselves and the indicted.

“You are really rooting for [the kids],” remarks Harford County Circuit Judge William O. Carr, appointed in 1984 and involved with the county’s Juvenile Drug Court since its inception in 2001. “It’s probably the most difficult thing I have done as a judge because, unlike most the people I see, after a while with [the Drug Court] you get to know [the kids].”

Kids convicted of a drug-related crime and who are within the age group of 13 to 17 are eligible for the Juvenile Drug Court in Harford County, which utilizes a three-phase, nine-to-12 month system and convenes twice a month. Statistical evidence has proven this program immensely effective as participants have had 36 percent fewer arrests than non-participants, and 59 percent fewer days on probation or parole, all coming at a 60 percent reduced cost for the criminal justice system

But these statistics do not accurately depict the entire tale of the program. Plagued mainly with drug-abuse cases ranging from heroin to the more prevalent cocaine and marijuana, Harford County’s program has handled some difficult cases, filled with overwhelming successes and aggravating defeats.

With approximately 23 years on the bench, Carr vividly recounts memories from his six years with the Juvenile Drug Court – some upsetting, others joyful, but all distinguished and profound. For instance, Carr recollects a girl who was completing the program swiftly and effectively, but, with a month till graduation, had a relapse and did not complete the program.

“The really heartbreaking [cases] are the ones that almost get through [the program but do not complete it],” states Carr. “You never want to give up on them.”

Overcoming a detrimental, self-destructive mentality that many of these participants possess is quite difficult in and of itself, but the infuriating factor for Carr and his staff comes when the cause for relapse or failure to complete the program is a result of the participants’ hazardous family environment. Carr recalls a 16-year-old-girl who took part in the program. She had a child and excelled through the program while living with her father. When the program discovered the girl’s father was using drugs despite his daughter’s efforts to remain clean, they arranged for the 16-year-old and her child to move in with her stepmother (who lived separate from the girl’s father). When that situation proved to be just as toxic, the program organized a foster home for the 16-year-old and her child, where she went on to do “very well,” according to Carr. The resilient girl vigorously tried to overcome her own demons, which were only compounded by her family’s inability to support her – a factor the Drug Court doggedly tried to rectify.

Sometimes the drug use is an anomaly to the user as much as it is to the Drug Court. A few years ago, a teenage boy who was fairly intelligent and held down two jobs entered the program for his drug use – Carr chides, “He just couldn’t lay off the marijuana.” Upon completion of the program, the boy entered the Marine Corp and came back to visit the Drug Court staff following basic training.

“[The kids] look at the judges as mothers or fathers,” says Gray Barton, Executive Director of the Office of Problem Solving Courts, which oversees Maryland’s Juvenile Drug Courts. “What they aren’t used to is being recognized for not missing a day of school or getting a handshake from a judge. The Drug Court meeting regularly definitely provides that [needed] immediate gratification.”

As any mother or father can attest, tough love is often a recourse used in a child’s upbringing, and the Drug Court is not exempt. On one occasion, a participant was going through the program while also attending community college. He did not have any real complication in completing the program, except for minor relapses every few months causing him to go back to square one.

“The staff came to the conclusion that [the program] was one of the strongest mechanisms he had in his life,” explains Carr. “Subconsciously, he would foul up to stay in the program because he got the support – he had somebody caring about him.”

After two years, the participant was released from the program because no further monitoring was deemed necessary. After all, eventually, these individuals have to stand on their own two feet. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘Enough is enough. I am terminating you from the program. I am sorry,’” Carr admits.

Tough love aside, Carr clearly takes pride in all of his participants. He resembles a proud father as he reminisces on past drug court graduates with a relaxed demeanor and gentle smile draped across his visage. “Graduations are the best days,” beams Carr. “You can see the difference. It’s the successes that keep us going until the next graduation.”

Conversely, when asked about a participant who did not complete the program, Carr maintains the same reclined posture, but his voice softens and takes on a somber tone, evoking a sense of longing. “There are always the ones you wish you could have done more for,” says Carr. “I ask myself, ‘What could we have done differently?’ You realize, not much.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: May  2007