Wilmington Drug Court Offers Juveniles Alternative to Prosecution

Success with Substance Abuse Treatment Leads to Expansion of Program

Eighteen months ago the City of Wilmington had a need to combat rising juvenile crime rates and inconsistent rehabilitative methods. The Delaware City's response was to emulate successful adult drug court diversion programs, this time applying the concept to youthful offenders.

The Wilmington Juvenile Drug Court Diversion Program is based on the concept that prosecution should not be the only option for substance abusing juveniles, and that drug treatment, education and other support services represent a far more desirable response to drug problems. The program aims for early intervention in the lives of first-time juvenile drug offenders, helping them develop the skills and maturity needed to halt their further penetration into the juvenile justice system.

In Wilmington, as in most other cities throughout the nation, resources to launch new programs are always scarce. For the juvenile drug program, help came from the federal government. A federal Comprehensive Communities Program grant was received by the City, a portion of which was used to develop the program.

While the program overall is supervised and monitored by the State of Delaware's Family Court, the City contracted with a non-profit substance abuse provider, SODAT-Delaware, Inc., to provide the treatment component for the young offenders.

Under the diversion concept, drug charges against a juvenile are held open in Family Court as long as the individual is in treatment and in compliance. When the individual successfully completes the program, the charges are dropped. This is an important feature of the program because in Delaware, a drug conviction will result in the loss of driving privileges until a juvenile reaches the age of 21. In addition, the juvenile will avoid an adjudication and the potential of a subsequent criminal record and, most importantly, will be given an opportunity to address the issues surrounding his or her arrest.

The role of the Court is unique in this program, in that the program uses the power of the Court to facilitate and monitor treatment. Case review sessions are conducted by the Court twice each week; these sessions include the juvenile, the parent(s) and treatment staff. Each juvenile in the program must be seen by the judge once each month. All active clients attend weekly treatment groups and meet with their counselor for individual sessions at least once each month. In addition, a social worker is retained to provide family therapy sessions. This family therapy component of the program works to educate and support families in their development as crucial members of a successful treatment team.

Of the 140 juveniles who have accepted the diversion option since the program's inception 18 months ago, only 15 have been unable to complete the program and have been removed by the presiding judge. This represents a non-compliance rate of 11 percent. Of the total entrants, only 13 have been re-arrested. With just one exception they were not removed from the program, however, due to the nature of their offenses and their positive progress in treatment. The supervising judge, at his discretion, has permitted these juveniles to remain in the program, citing the best interests of the juveniles and their community.

While juveniles in the program range in age from 11 to 19, most are 15-17 years old. More than three our of four are males. There are currently 67 active participants in the program.

Wilmington's Mayor James Sills and other City officials judge the diversion program to be very effective. The recidivism rate for program participants is 9.28 percent, compared to the national rate of about 60 percent for juveniles not involved in drug courts. Participation in the program has produced some dramatic changes in the behavior of the participants: School attendance and scholastic achievement have improved, and of the juveniles currently active in treatment, 90 percent of those eligible to work have remained employed or have found employment since entering the program.

A SODAT application to the State of Delaware's Summer Youth Employment Corps to employ program participants through an eight-week community service project produced 15 summer job slots. SODAT also obtained athletic scholarships for summer youth camps with the City's Parks Department, and has an application pending with Americorps for an educational awards program that would be available to students in appropriate fields of study who could serve as mentors for the Juvenile Drug Court graduates in an after-care support network.

Wilmington officials say the success of this program can be directly attributed to program and treatment staff working directly and effectively with the Juvenile Probation Department, school districts, employers and the Family Court to ensure that the young participants are being closely monitored and that they are receiving appropriate treatment services. Much staff effort goes into strengthening relationships with the school system. Counselors visit the schools to meet with teachers, counselors, principals and other professional staff who work with the juveniles in the program.

In a July 28 press conference in Wilmington, federal, state and local officials announced that Delaware had won a $390,000 federal grant to continue the program for another 18 months and to expand it into New Castle County and Dover.

More information is available from Douglas Smith at SODAT-Delaware, Inc., (302) 656-4044.

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