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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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