By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A new program designed to keep juveniles from going down the deadly road of drug abuse was celebrated Monday by state and county court officials who hope it will help young people before they become adult offenders.
The new McDowell County Juvenile Drug Court has been accepting applicants since November 2012, Family Court Judge Lisa Clark told guests at the grand opening ceremony. Eight juveniles are now participating in the new drug court.
Michael Lacy, director of Probation Services for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, said McDowell County’s program is the newest juvenile drug court in West Virginia. The state supreme court established the juvenile drug court in 1999 at Cabell County.
“We are absolute believers in the effectiveness of drug courts,” Lacy told the guests at the McDowell County Courthouse Annex.
The juvenile drug court takes young people from ages 12 to 18, Clark said later. Entities including circuit court, the McDowell County Board of Education, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, and the county probation office can refer juveniles to the program.
Participants stay in juvenile drug court for eight months or longer, Clark said. The goal is to steer young people away from the drug culture before they become offenders who must be handled by the adult court system.
“You can see the pride in their faces when people say ‘good job with your grades,’” she said.
Judges and others officials who work in juvenile drug court are volunteers, Clark said. They do not receive extra pay for their work.
Chief Justice Brent Benjamin of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia said there has been “a wonderful expansion” of drug courts.
“It’s expanding because it works,” he said of the system.
Benjamin recalled one woman who graduated from Mercer County’s drug court. She showed him her new baby and said the child had been born drug free thanks to the program.
“That made up my mind right there and then. I decided we needed new drug courts as fast as possible,” he said.
Drug courts save taxpayers’ dollars, too, Benjamin said.
“This year alone, it will save the state $17 million just in having the folks who are diverted into drug courts staying out of our prison system. It’s amazing. If you put them in prison, it costs us money, they come out, and they (relapse), they go back in, and that’s the negative cycle I keep talking about. Not only do they cost us money in the future each time they come in and out, but they’re an additional safety threat to our children and our families. So this breaks those cycles.”
Ultimately, drug courts save lives and communities while building responsible citizens, he said.
“It’s a wonderful thing. Of course, it’s not all roses. For those who are involved in the drug court program, it’s tough,” Benjamin said of the drug courts’ requirements.
“People have to change behavior. For those who graduate, it’s truly an important moment in their lives because they’ve shown themselves they can do something. It’s oftentimes not until the second or third month when they really turn around,” Benjamin said.