Pubdate: Sun, 16 Nov 2008
Source: Belleville News-Democrat (IL)
Copyright: 2008 Belleville News-Democrat
Author: Nancy Cambria
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


ST. LOUIS -- It's after-school Thursday, and despite the worn 
furniture and threadbare carpet, St. Louis City Family Drug Court 
Commissioner Michael Noble is working his bench like he's on the set 
of Dr. Phil.

"When was the last time you read a book?" he asks a sullen 
15-year-old with weighty gold skull earrings tugging at her earlobes. 
"Would you rather read or get high?"

"Read," the girl mumbles from behind a small podium.

Noble, a former city prosecutor, steadily grills the girl about her 
future. Someday, she guesses, she wants to be a nurse.

So Noble sends her to the library to read a nursing book.

"I've got to read a book? No DVDs or nothing?" she asks, her eyes 
widening. She is dispatched to the hallway where some 15 other 
juveniles, freshly drug-tested, are waiting.

So it goes once a week in St. Louis City Family Court's unique 
Marijuana Misdemeanor Court, a year-old creation of St. Louis Family 
Court Judge Jimmie Edwards to keep at-risk juveniles from ever 
reaching the punitive side of the legal system. In this court, 
juveniles busted for smoking pot are neither charged nor convicted of 
a crime but get, at minimum, four month's worth of court orders so 
parental and therapeutic it would make Dr. Phil smile.

Consider the teen who "dropped" another positive drug test.

"Explain to me why you got high this weekend," Noble commands.

The teen says he skipped school to play chess with a friend - the 
same friend who contributed to a two-blunt-a-day habit.

Noble shakes his head.

"You need your brain cells to play chess because you have to be three 
moves ahead," he says firmly. "You've got to find people who are 
smarter than you, that are exciting to you and make you a better person."

The teen is ordered to continue counseling - and to take a chess set 
to his school cafeteria so he can find some decent lunch-time opponents.

The teen looks up, intrigued.

"You'll be amazed at who stops by," Noble says.

The new court has handled 54 teens who normally would have stood 
before a criminal bench. It is indicative of Edwards' efforts to 
retool the way his court oversees juveniles charged with minor offenses.

The primary goal is to get kids off what's considered a gateway drug 
to deeper addictions and other crimes. But Edwards said the court 
strives to deter kids from entering the formal legal system, 
especially the city's juvenile detention facility located off of 
Vandeventer Avenue. That rehabilitative approach underscores not only 
misdemeanor drug cases but offenses such as shoplifting, vandalism 
and even car theft.

"Confinement is not good for the juvenile. It's not good for his 
family. Or is it good for the community," Edwards said. "Most of our 
juveniles return to the community in two to four years after 
adjudication. The question is: How do you want these children back? 
Do we want them poor with a sophisticated criminal mind, or do we 
want them back as a productive citizen?"

Teens in the city's juvenile detention facility have not yet had 
their cases resolved by a judge. They wear color-coded sweat suits, 
shoulder worries about gang conflict and spend some of their day behind bars.

Their experience stands in contrast to Missouri's nationally 
recognized youth corrections program. In that system, teens who have 
been processed by the court for serious offenses live in dormlike 
settings with no bars or prison garb and often go on educational 
outings as part of their therapeutic rehabilitation.

Edwards said it doesn't make sense to treat most teens in the 
juvenile court like hardened criminals, especially those coping with 
intense poverty, generational substance abuse and broken households.

When Edwards took the bench in January 2007, he said, he was 
discouraged to find teens languishing for months in juvenile lockup 
waiting to have their cases heard by the court. One had been detained 
just short of two years awaiting a hearing on an offense that would 
carry a 30-day maximum jail term for adults. It was a wake-up call, 
Edwards said.

In the past two years, the average daily number of juveniles in the 
family court's detention facility has declined by nearly half to 54. 
The average stay in confinement also has declined by 41 percent, to 
17 days from 29. Much of the latter decline Edwards attributes to his 
orders last year to begin fast-tracking juvenile cases through the 
court system.

In many cases, that allows juveniles to more quickly find placement 
in the state's highly regarded youth corrections programs.

For other offenders, the court diverts the juvenile from the legal 
system altogether, placing them in at-risk programs that include 
counseling, job training and enrichment programs. Others are put 
under the supervision of an increasing number of Neighborhood 
Accountability Boards that provide mentoring and restorative justice. 
For teens facing more serious charges, the court is further utilizing 
after-school reporting centers and increased visits from juvenile 
officers. Global positioning system devices also track whether some 
juveniles are going directly home or to work after school.

"I don't want to give the impression we're just releasing these 
kids," Edwards said. "Juveniles who commit crimes should be held 
accountable, and their communities must be kept safe."

The marijuana program stands out because of just how far it pushes 
the everyday workings of the court into the therapeutic.

Two hours before his court begins each Thursday, Noble conducts a 
"staffing" in which juvenile detention officers freely discuss each 
teen's progress and circumstances.

In this setting, Noble, who has no background in social work, looks 
for the causes behind delinquencies and tinkers with treatment plans.

"I think he's medicating," Noble says of a teen who he suspects is 
using drugs to deal with the death of his mom.

And of the girl who keeps smoking despite doing fine in school and 
following all of her treatment plans, Noble says: "She's hiding 
something. There's guilt and a secret." He orders her into individual therapy.

Kids who stay clean get praise and applause from the clerks, social 
workers and juvenile officer. Those who don't get more counseling, 
community projects, additional drug testing and a longer term with 
Noble. Those who continually break the rules are referred to the 
regular juvenile drug court. If a serious addiction is clear, the 
court presses for intensive drug treatment.

The program has had 22 graduates. Seven others have gone on to face 
formal charges.

Noble repeatedly reminds his staff not to write off any teen, 
including a 16-year-old with a gift for singing who has been in 
foster care most of his life. Before the hearing, his juvenile 
officer worried the teen's unresolved anger would lead to trouble. 
But Noble pushes his staff in another direction: Enroll the teen in 
the city's performing arts high school.

"What if I told you we're going to make that resource available to 
you?" Noble asks the stone-faced teen during his hearing.

The teen's face lights up. He looks Noble directly in the eyes.

"Yeah, I want to go there," he says. "I want to go."
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