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 Article of Interest - Juvenile Justice

Program gives problem teens second chance
Offenders praise Juvenile Drug Court
by Jennifer Brooks, The Detroit News, October 4, 2002
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PONTIAC -- Fifteen months ago, Judge Edward Sosnick peered down at the sullen teen-ager with the blue hair, pierced face and a long rap sheet slouching before his bench, and wondered if this new rehabilitation program was such a hot idea.


This week, the same boy stood before the court, unpierced, undyed, smiling and sober, and the very first graduate of the Oakland County Family Focused Juvenile Drug Court's OPTIONS program. On Tuesday evening, he stood before the judge one last time, to thank him for the year and a half of hard work, therapy, counseling, bullying and praise it took to turn his life around.


"They saw hope in me when I didn't," said the young man, Dan, whose identity is protected by the court. "So many times I hated everything and everyone. I was in and out of the hospital, in trouble with the cops. This is the best thing that could have happened to me."


Sosnick leaned over his podium and pulled his first graduate into a hug.


"I wouldn't trade this experience or this program for all the money in the world," said the judge, who donates his time to the program, like so many other of its volunteers.


Juvenile Drug Court is a place for second chances. And third chances. As many chances as it takes for a kid at risk to turn his or her life around.


Here, juvenile offenders and their families are counseled, monitored, lectured, encouraged, tested, mentored and screened. There are random drug tests, unannounced home inspections, mandatory therapy and support group sessions. The court monitors every single movement these kids make -- the grades they earn, the drugs or alcohol they try to sneak, the friends they see, the classes they skip, the times they sneak out of the house, the fights they pick, and the times they get everything right. The court even sets their curfew.


The program focuses just as much on parents: counseling them, helping them set rules and boundaries, teaching them the parenting skills they may have never learned, or had given up trying to use.


"It helped me as a single parent control someone who's bigger than I am," Dan's mother said, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her tall son. "I knew he was an incredible guy with so much to offer. Now he has goals, plans, a future that he never had before."


During the regular court sessions, the youngsters are called up one by one, with their parents, to review the lapses or accomplishments of the past week.


"Did you use this week?" he asked one boy.


"Yeah, I got lazy," the kid admitted.


A couple of friends came over while his parents were out and cracked open a bottle of alcohol. The judge imposed home detention, while praising the young man for owning up to his mistake, and praised his parents for handling the violation calmly.


A young woman, rewarded for three straight weeks of good behavior -- good participation in her group therapy sessions, good communication at home, making plans to take the GED, getting good marks from her supervisors at work -- celebrated her 106th day of sobriety with a coupon from Boston Market from the judge.


Another youngster, who snuck out of the house to ride his dirt bike, used marijuana and was suspended from school for three days for refusing to give up a cigarette, is going to spend the next few weeks strapped to an electronic tether. Even here, the judge found cause for optimism.


"Some good things came out of it," said Sosnick, noting that the young man told the truth about the drug use and took responsibility for his poor judgment and improved his behavior at home. "You've got to learn. Every moment is about making choices. You're only in the fourth week of the program. It will get better. I believe in you."


In the past 15 months, the court has treated 22 youngsters, between the ages of 12 and 17, and their families. The rate of recidivism for youngsters in the program is 14 percent -- compared to 70 percent for offenders in the standard juvenile court programs. The program costs the county $15,000 a year per person, compared to the $60,000 per year it would cost to institutionalize a single youth.


Almost all of the 10 participants in the evening court session stayed to watch the graduation ceremony for the first two to make it out. A few smiled and applauded along with the parents in the audience; most slouched and looked skeptical. But they stayed.


And many of these kids were headed behind bars. Although the program does not accept violent offenders, it concentrates on the serious offenders, the ones whose drug or alcohol use has led to other crimes or serious disruptions in their communities or families.


"When they come into the program, these are fairly hard-core kids. Some of these kids were one-person crime waves," said assistant prosecuting attorney Bob Zivian, who works with the youngsters' appointed defense attorney, Eliot Zipser.


This program, he joked, worked so well and made him feel so good, he almost considered switching teams and becoming a defense attorney.


The drug court's second graduate, Cindy, was ushered into the courtroom a year ago in shackles and an institutional jump suit. Sober an entire year, college-bound with plans to study accounting, she was voted "most changed" by her high school class.


"I'm not the same lost girl I was," she said, as her mother and other parents in the courtroom wiped away tears. "For the first time in my life, I'm proud of myself. I accomplished something I thought I couldn't -- thank you guys."


Clearing his throat, her father stepped up to the microphone.


"I just want to thank you for giving us our daughter back," he said.

 

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