Monday, January 18, 2010

Juvenile Court Proposal would involve parents, mentors

Juvenile court proposal would involve parents, mentors more
Published Saturday, January 16, 2010
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Juvenile offenders present unique challenges for law enforcement, officials say.

Like adult offenders, they often face substance abuse or mental health issues, according to data.

But unlike adults, juveniles have -- or are supposed to have -- other people accept responsibility for them.

With that in mind, officials in the 14th Judicial Circuit are working to create a new juvenile court program that would require increased involvement from parents, schools, mentors and counselors in hopes of stemming substance abuse and future misconduct among juvenile offenders.

Family Court Judge Peter Fuge and 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone both support the change, which would require a group of juvenile offenders to appear in court once a week with their guardians and counselors to prove they're making positive changes. Fuge and assistant solicitor Carson Sowell Twombley -- who would direct the new program -- predicted Friday that about 30 juveniles would be in the program at any given time.

The Solicitor's Office has applied for three grants to get the program started. The estimated cost of running the new court for a year is about $190,000, Solicitor's Office spokesman Daniel Brownstein said. Officials will learn whether they've received the grants in late spring, Brownstein said.

Fuge wants to begin the program in July.

Regardless of grant funding, the court will open -- even if it must be on a smaller scale than officials would like, Fuge said.

"It's necessary. Beaufort County is behind the curve on this one," he said.


Under the current system, juvenile offenders who plead guilty may be sentenced to serve time at a juvenile facility in Columbia.

The judge also could choose to place the offender on probation, requiring community service, curfews and drug counseling, among other possibilities. The child generally is required to appear before a judge only several times, Fuge said.

But existing sentencing options often are unable to address underlying problems young offenders face, Fuge, solicitor Stone and assistant solicitor Sowell Twombley said.

The new Beaufort County Juvenile Multi-Disciplinary Court could offer a way to address those problems, they said.

Here's how the program would work:

Offenders must be younger than 18, live in Beaufort County, be charged with a non-violent criminal offense in the county, have a history of drug or alcohol abuse or mental or behavioral health issues and indicate a willingness to change their behavior, according to a participant handbook.

Offenders may volunteer or be recommended for the program and must sign a contract saying they'll comply with its terms.

The program, which would take about one year for most offenders to complete, requires weekly appearances before a judge and has three phases.

In the first phase, participants must submit to regular drug and alcohol tests and counseling, according to the handbook. They're also required to submit to a 6 p.m. curfew and participate in a court-approved extra-curricular activity, such as a school sport or a church group, the handbook says.

For their court appearances, boys are required to wear a collared shirt and tie; girls are required to wear a blouse and pants or knee-length skirt. Jeans, flip-flops and hats are not allowed, according to the handbook. Participants are required to pay a weekly $5 court fee.

Participants must continue testing, counseling and activities in the second and third phases, proving to the judge weekly that they're making progress. The judge could grant later curfews or require less frequent court appearances, among other incentives, to successful participants.

Participants who fail to comply with the terms of the program risk failing it and could face time in a detention center, the handbook says.

Counselors and guardians also must report to the judge at the weekly appearances. For example, a school representative would tell the judge whether the child had unexcused absences, while a counselor would report results of a drug test. Guardians also would report to the judge about the child's behavior. Parents who fail to attend the hearings could face jail time, Fuge said.

The program is aimed at addressing the problems that led to the offenders' drug use in the first place by giving them immediate treatment and structure, Fuge and Sowell Twombley said. If it works as they hope, graduating from the program could strengthen the offenders' family structures and increase their chances of graduating from high school, they said.

"Because of the people we're dealing with, you have to define your own success," Fuge said. "They've got no money, poor housing, only a few have intact families. ... The name of the game is getting them through high school."

The prototype for the local program is modeled on the nationally recognized juvenile drug court in Charleston -- a system that Fuge, Stone and Sowell Twombley have observed in session.

"It's amazing," Fuge said. "At graduation, they get a certificate and everyone's clapping for them. It's the first time in this kid's life they did something positive."

But not everyone graduates from the program.

Fuge said he would consider the program a success if 15 participants a year graduate

Sowell Twombley said even 10 graduates would be a "huge success."

Graduates of the program are less likely to commit more crimes, according to research gathered by the Solicitor's Office. There is only a five percent rate of recidivism among Charleston's drug court graduates, according to the research.

Reduced recidivism means money saved in the long run, Fuge said.

"It could stop the revolving door into the criminal justice system," he said."

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