Bolton: If it fixes what's broken, why not do more of it?

Associate EditorNovember 5, 2009 

MOST Monday evenings, a group of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, treatment specialists and a few others teams up in an effort to produce a small miracle - help an alcohol- or drug-dependent youth who's committed a crime turn his life around and stay out of prison.

While Richland County's Juvenile Drug Court and others like it around the state - including those for adults - don't get a lot of notoriety, they're very effective at helping reclaim young lives.

"If it works for one, it's worth it," said S.C. Appeals Court Judge Bruce Williams, who has presided over the Richland court since 1998. Fortunately, the program "works for a lot more" than one juvenile, he said.

The worthwhile program benefits not only the nonviolent offenders and their families, but also the state. Every young person steered away from the Department of Juvenile Justice keeps the inmate population down and saves tax dollars. Judge Williams said it costs $6,000 to $8,000 to send a teen through drug court, as opposed to $43,000 a year to house that same person at DJJ,.

And to think, the drug court - as is the case with them all in South Carolina - runs on a meager budget. Its effectiveness is attributable to the dedicated team of volunteers who give their time in an effort to save kids who otherwise would be gobbled up by the penal system.

"We're the last ones to leave the courthouse on Monday nights," Judge Williams said.

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of faith leaders and nonprofit service providers who had been assembled to hear from Judge Williams. Judge Williams had come at the invitation of the Columbia Urban League.

In addition to introducing community leaders, Judge Williams and others involved with the program took the opportunity to ask faith leaders and nonprofit providers to help support young people once they complete the process. So often, young people might turn their lives around in the program, only to struggle once they're out from under the safety net of accountability it provided. Young people tend to be more stable when there is a mentor or teacher or group that reaches out to support them, Judge Williams said.

Many have no clue as to what happens at the court, said Judge Williams, who proved to be a most enthusiastic advocate.

"Some people think it's a place where you go and you prosecute all the drug offenders," he said. "It's a treatment court.... It's an alternative court."

Instead of going to criminal court and ending up in prison, youths who commit nonviolent crimes as a result of drug use can go to drug court. The program provides ongoing intervention aimed at more effectively handling non-violent juvenile offenders with substance abuse problems. It not only provides treatment for addiction but also tracks school attendance and performance. It delves into what's happening with the offender's everyday life. Juveniles who successfully complete the nine- to 15-month program can have their records expunged. Those who fail face incarceration.

When the 10-person team meets with offenders each Monday to review their progress, they leave no stone unturned. "We want to know as much as we can about what happened that week," Judge Williams said.

The juveniles are encouraged to graduate high school (or get a GED), get a job and go to college or the military. They receive regular feedback and are rewarded for their successes. The rewards range from praise or applause to a gift certificate.

But make no mistake; these offenders aren't coddled. The wrong move - such as failing a drug test or dropping out - could immediately land them in DJJ.

That said, the intent of drug court isn't to put kids behind bars. Some of the youths are going to make little mistakes along the way; they're given an opportunity to regroup. "We don't give up easily," Judge Williams said.

The concept of drug courts is refreshing in a state that embraces the lock 'em up and throw away the key mentality. All that's gotten us is dangerously overcrowded prisons.

Judge Williams says 70 percent of juveniles participating in drug courts stay out of trouble. Yet despite their amazing effectiveness, they haven't caught on with the Legislature. While they might receive a modest amount of public funding, drug courts aren't a formal part of our judicial system and don't get guaranteed funding (if there is any such thing these days). Some states have had the wisdom to establish drug courts by statute and make them part of their court system, giving them regular funding; South Carolina needs to do so as well.

There is some concern - and understandably so - that formally establishing drug courts could draw money away from our already-underfunded judicial system. I know we're long on needs and short on money. But is it a surprise that the same Legislature that won't properly fund prisons won't properly fund courts?

Something's got to give. If lawmakers aren't going to give Corrections or DJJ the money needed to carry out their missions, then they should institute a statewide drug court system and other alternative methods to ease the burden of housing inmates. Actually, they should do that even if they are going to fund the prisons; that would end up costing less in the long run.

There are about 28 adult and juvenile courts in the state. "We have quietly grown them," Judge Williams said. But there is a need for more, and it's incumbent upon lawmakers to make it happen.

Why? Judge Williams says it best: "They work."

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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