ST. ALBANS - Last week, Franklin County announced plans to open Vermont's first-ever criminal court designed specifically for adolescent lawbreakers who have substance-abuse problems. The new juvenile drug treatment court is the latest tool in the state's ongoing effort to find more humane, effective and economical ways of fighting the root causes of criminal behavior.
Earlier this year, Franklin County was selected as one of only 10 municipalities around the country to receive a U.S. Department of Justice grant to set up the court. Designed for youths ages 13 to 17, it is expected to begin hearing cases by February 2007.
The problems of teenaged drug abuse and its associated crimes aren't necessarily more acute in Franklin County than elsewhere in the state, notes Pam McCarthy, field director for the St. Albans district of the Vermont Agency of Human Services. In fact, illegal drug use among all Vermont teens has been steadily declining in recent years, according to figures from the Vermont Department of Health. Since 1997, the use of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens and methamphetamine among eighth- to 12th-graders has gone down; only heroin and opiate use remain constant.
Nevertheless, the use and availability of drugs is an ongoing concern for school districts and police. More than half the teenagers queried last year in the health department's annual "Youth Risk Behavior Survey" reported that they knew an adult who uses drugs; one in three knew an adult who deals drugs. About one in five reported that they'd driven a car after smoking pot in the last 30 days.
Drug use is often a contributing factor in the crimes young people commit, McCarthy notes, such as burglary, vandalism, DWI and retail theft. The youths who will be eligible for the new drug court will not necessarily have committed a drug-related offense, but must be identified as having a substance-abuse problem and cannot have committed a violent offense. Initially, the court will handle about 10 juveniles at a time, with additional cases being referred as other community support services get up and running.
The Franklin County juvenile drug court is similar to other "specialty" or "problem-solving" courts in Vermont, such as adult drug court, family court and mental-health court, which take a more enlightened approach to crime and punishment. These courts recognize that locking up nonviolent offenders usually does little or nothing to correct their underlying problems - in this case, drug addiction - and most go on to re-offend once they're released.
Instead, specialty courts combine incentives and legal sanctions to coerce offenders into getting treatment and counseling for their addictions. In the Franklin County model, young nonviolent offenders who admit to substance-abuse problems may have the option of receiving treatment rather than jail time.
Drug treatment courts tend to be more time- and labor-intensive than traditional criminal courts - typically, a case lasts between 12 and 18 months. And although Vermont's three adult drug treatment courts - in Chittenden, Rutland and Washington counties - are still too new for the state to have compiled data on their long-term effectiveness, statistics at the national level are encouraging.
Karen Gennette is Vermont's treatment court coordinator. She has numbers from other drug treatment courts around the country which show that their "graduates" are far less likely to use drugs again, get re-arrested or cost the taxpayers money for other public services. One study, in Multnomah County, Oregon, estimates that for each dollar spent on drug court, the county saved $10. Another study, of a 7-year-old drug treatment court in St. Louis, Missouri, found that nonviolent drug offenders who were placed in treatment programs instead of prison earned more money and took less from the state welfare system than those who completed traditional probation.
Beyond the lower recidivism rates and cost savings to taxpayers are the intangible human benefits, Gennette notes. "I think it's an incredible thing that's happening [in St. Albans]," she says. "If you talk to the folks involved in treatment courts, they've seen people's lives turn around and make remarkable changes. Not everybody does, but there's a significant enough number of people who do."
Gennette adds that the Franklin County treatment court is only the latest in a series of specialty courts and dockets being added to the Vermont criminal justice system. Other specialty courts now in the works or being considered in Vermont include a new mental health court in Newport, which will handle co-occurring disorders of mental illness and drug use, and a "specialized domestic violence docket" in Bennington County, which will take an integrated approach to cases of abuse and neglect, drug addiction and domestic violence.