Forsyth officials lament loss of juvenile justice program

by Keith Barber

Winston-Salem City Councilman James Taylor believes the economic ripple effects of the budget passed by the NC General Assembly will soon be felt at the municipal level. Taylor, a Democrat, said state Republicans ran on small government but they’ve created big government by slashing important programs that have longrange economic benefits. “There’s a distinct difference between small government and absent government and when it comes to youth and justice programs, it appears from my perspective — I’m in the trenches and I see that government is absent and ultimately the cost comes to the local municipalities, to the taxpayers,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s position as a juvenile justice counselor in the Forsyth County court system was a casualty of significant budget cuts to the state courts system. Like many in the Forsyth County court system, Taylor said he could see the handwriting on the wall. Back in June, when the state budget process was in full swing, Taylor and other officers of the court met with local officials to try to save Adult Drug Court and Juvenile Treatment Court.

In mid-June, Forsyth County Chief District Court Judge William Reingold met with Dave Plyler, a member of the Forsyth County Commission, to advocate on behalf of the two intervention programs.

“[Reingold] told me it was one of the best programs he’s ever had,” Plyler said. “It’s a program that works, and I would like to see it continue. But with the makeup of the county commissioners, I don’t know if a majority of my colleagues would agree to keep it going.”

Adult drug courts have been in operation throughout the state for more than 15 years. Launched in 2003, Forsyth County Juvenile Treatment Court was one of the first juvenile drug courts in the state.

Reingold reached out to Plyler in an effort to save the two justice programs after state legislators cut more than $15 million from the NC Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the 2011-2012 fiscal year budget, which led to the elimination of the program.

But Reingold’s plea proved ill-fated. The Forsyth County Commission had already passed its $402.3 million budget ahead of the General Assembly passing its budget. No provision to save Juvenile Treatment Court or

Adult Drug Court made it into the county’s budget for the current fiscal year.

Like Reingold, Taylor met with Plyler and commissioners Everette Witherspoon and Walter Marshall to appeal for continuation funding of adult drug court and juvenile drug treatment court. Taylor also invited members of the Forsyth County delegation to the NC General Assembly to observe juvenile drug court and adult drug court during the budget process. Sen. Linda Garrou, along with Reps. Earline Parmon and Larry Womble — all Democrats — accepted Taylor’s invitation and witnessed a session of juvenile drug court.

“They sat from beginning to end,” Taylor said. “They got a chance to see 12 cases where this court made a difference in the lives of young people and they went on to support [continuation of the program] in the budget.”

Taylor said he was disappointed that no Republican legislators from Forsyth accepted his invitation because he believes the program’s track record of turning around the lives of young people speaks for itself.

“This program not only saves money, it saves people,” Taylor said. “Why would any government not want a program like this?” Forsyth County could have saved both juvenile drug court and adult drug court programs by carving out $90,000 in its current budget, Taylor said. Most of the funding would have gone toward the salaries of Taylor and Mark Kinney, the former drug treatment court coordinator. The program budget is relatively low due to the cooperation of a number of government agencies, Taylor said. It is this holistic approach of Juvenile Treatment Court in particular that has made the program such a success, Taylor said.

“Because of our relationship with [NC] Department of Juvenile Justice, the [Forsyth County District Attorney’s] office, it was a team effort,” Taylor said. “There was a team of people who sat down together biweekly — a defense attorney, a prosecutor, a court counselor, treatment specialists from the Children’s Home, a judge, and we evaluated everybody on a case-by-case basis. All that tender loving care made our program different from all of the rest.”

Kinney estimated the graduation rate of Adult Drug Court and Juvenile Treatment Court was roughly 37 percent. “To a lot of folks that number sounds terrible but when you’re dealing with addiction, it’s a different ballgame,” he said. “I think the drug treatment courts have been successful because a lot of counties have picked up the programs throughout the state.”

Guilford County is one of a number of North Carolina counties that continued funding its adult drug court and juvenile drug court programs after the state budget cuts came down in June, said Guilford County drug treatment court coordinator Carri Munns.

Taylor said that the NC Judicial Branch comprises a small percentage of the overall justice and public safety budget but has taken a bigger hit during the past budget years.

According to a fact sheet released by the NC Judicial Branch, Adult Drug Treatment Court programs throughout the state served more than 1,400 offenders during the 2009- 2010 fiscal year. Without drug treatment court, processing those same offenders through the traditional court system would have cost taxpayers more than $4.9 million. Incarceration of drug-addicted offenders costs the state between $23,000 and $50,000 per person per year, according to the fact sheet. Nationally, 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free two years after leaving the program and drug courts help reduce crime as much as 35 percent more than other sentencing options.

“Unless substance abusing/addicted offenders are regularly supervised by a judge and held accountable for keeping their obligations, 70 percent drop out of treatment prematurely and few successfully graduate,” the fact sheet states.

Regular supervision and a customized approach to each participant’s case led to success in Forsyth’s adult drug court and juvenile drug treatment court programs, Taylor said.

“We took the time and evaluated each juvenile’s case, so you were not just another number,” he said. “We had the same judge, and every time before court, we looked at each case. We would look at how they were doing at home, how they were doing at school and in the community. That would change from week-to-week or from month-to-month.”

Kinney said the criminal justice system does not address addiction. In Juvenile Drug Treatment Court, the participants are on intensive probation whereas in the past, they may have been reporting to a probation officer one time a month or once every two months, Kinney said.

“It worked well for those kids and adults that were on probation with substance abuse issues; it helped them get into treatment,” Kinney said. “With a team of folks working real tightly with probation, you get to ensure these folks are getting what they need.”

Kinney said the judges involved in the program like District Court Judge George Bedsworth were very fond of the program because they got to take an active role in the participants’ recovery.

“It’s about getting folks treatment and getting them clean,” Kinney said. “In some cases, it gives people their lives back and their families back. In juvenile court, it gave families their kids back.”

Kinney said parental involvement is one of the foundations of juvenile drug treatment court. “Parents are required to be at each and every hearing, and quite often, the judge spoke directly to the parents,” he said. “It gives the parents a voice to state what they need in a courtroom. That was the good thing — you had that check in every two weeks. Participants left the courtroom knowing what they had to do and hopefully, they could maintain that throughout the process.”

Adult Drug Court has a 12-month probationary period while Juvenile Drug Treatment Court has a nine-month probationary period. Upon graduation, participants in both programs receive some sort of aftercare treatment.

“My job was to usher them around throughout the entire process,” Taylor said. “We made referrals to organizations, to aftercare. We made referrals to treatment and group homes, so the juvenile drug court is there from the onset. Once they’re placed on probation and they’re referred to our program by a judge, we hold their hand and their family’s hand every step of the way.”

Taylor said he witnessed a number of success stories in both Adult Drug Court and Juvenile Drug Treatment Court, but he could see lives take a different direction in juvenile drug court. “That’s where the heavy lifting is done,” Taylor said. “We take into consideration what medications they’re on; what they’re doing at home, in school, in the community; that’s where you can truly make change.”

“It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men,” Taylor continued. “Once they get into the adult system, they become broken men and women, but while they’re in the juvenile system, we have a chance to build them, mold them and shape them into productive citizens.”