Pubdate: Fri, 29 Sep 2000
Source: Ventura County Star (CA)
Copyright: 2000, Ventura County Star
Author: Aron Miller


James used drugs for four years as a teen-ager before he landed in the
usually unforgiving hands of law enforcement.

Two years ago, a judge likely would have sentenced him to probation,
maybe even jail time, for his transgressions. Then he would have been
released to fend for himself.

But last year, Ventura County started its juvenile drug court program.
It wasn't for everyone, just those with drug problems who were not
arrested for violent or sex crimes.

James and Daniel were the first participants. And Thursday, they were
the first to graduate.

Probation officers, drug counselors, county officials, and friends and
family packed Courtroom 22 to congratulate the pair and applaud what's
seen as a novel approach to treating juvenile substance abuse.

"James and Daniel said, 'We're going to do it,' and it's very hard to
do it," said Justice Steven Z. Perren of the 2nd District Court of
Appeals in Ventura. "For those of us who have never been involved with
drugs, we think it's nothing, but to them it's everything."

James and Daniel, both 18, came before Superior Court Judge Brian J.
Back, the juvenile court jurist, one at a time to "have their file
read." Both reports were stamped, "Ready to graduate."

Back made it clear it takes a lot to make it through. "This is not a
cushy court," he told the crowd. "If you're not going to do the job,
we don't have the time."

The numbers show that. Of those who were eligible for the program, the
court rejected 142 and accepted 67. Of those accepted, 27 eventually
were terminated.

James and Daniel weren't, and both seemed to touch the hearts of those
who helped them make it.

"You and James made this program work," said a teary-eyed Donna
Thonis, a deputy district attorney. "All the kids who come behind you
know it can work."

During his time in the program, James used his artistic talents to
design the court's logo -- an ant holding a potted rubber tree plant
from the famed Frank Sinatra song, "High Hopes." He received the
drawing framed as a going away gift.

There are currently 39 juveniles in the program, which is funded by
the Justice Accountability Incentive Block Grant and the cities of
Oxnard, Ventura,Santa Paula, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks.

In order to complete the program participants must go through 12
months of intensive substance abuse treatment and close probation
supervision, according to a court official.

If the court system can help kids before it's too late, the results
could mean not only fewer of them on drugs, but less violent crime,
Back said.

"There is absolutely nothing good that drugs are doing to our kids,"
he said. "Drugs and alcohol are fueling a good deal of what comes
through the criminal justice system."

And if everyone has the confidence James does, more graduates will

"Now that people know you can get through it," he said, "it's really
not that hard." 
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