Gila County Juvenile Drug Court is a last chance to stop addicted youths from entering the Arizona Department of Corrections.
"Many of the young people we see have one foot there ... It's easy to see they'd be headed into the corrections system," said Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill, who is part of the team that makes drug court work.
Drug court is also a cost-saving measure for county and state budgets.
"If we save one from the DOC, we're saving $45,000 a year (the cost of keeping a juvenile in a corrections facility)," Cahill said, adding that the program does not cost the county extra money. It is financed through moving funds already in the judicial account.
Additionally, by not sending a juvenile into a residential treatment program and working with them at home, with their family, the county saves from $6,000 to $7,000 a month.
"We're keeping them from the brink," said Gila County District 1 Supervisor Tommie Martin. She attended the Aug. 29 graduation of an individual who successfully completed the program.
Working on the team with Cahill are First Deputy County Attorney Patti Wortman, Deputy Probation Officer Teresa Bunker, counselor Shannon Spellman, surveillance officer Judy Hood, the juveniles, one of their parents and other family members.
"Drug court works because it works with the team concept," Cahill said. The team is in place at the court and in the home.
He said that in Arizona and throughout the nation the program has a demonstrated track record to stop drug use. It gives youths new coping skills, ways of communicating with the adults in their lives, creating relationships and participating in events where there are no drugs.
"We use court tools to require the juvenile and their parent to get therapy," Cahill said. "They are tested frequently and required to disclose if they have been using. We know about it and deal with it right away."
He said lawyers are not involved. If they are present, they sit to the side of the room and the team works directly with the juvenile.
Juveniles serve jail time for using drugs and not admitting their transgressions; more time in therapy is the result of skipping required sessions.
"There are applause and rewards for good efforts," Cahill said. "Parents are rewarded too."
Drug court is held every other week and it takes about 10 months for a juvenile to go through the process, eight if they don't make any mistakes along the way, Bunker said.
"I am with them at pretrial, when they first face the judge, and work with them through sentencing," Bunker said. In the process she gets to know the family.
To be admitted into the program, a juvenile must be diagnosed as addicted and a repeat offender on probation. The participants are ordered into the program, but must also agree to it and all its requirements, Bunker said.
"They are closely supervised and must provide schedules of work and school," she said. "They have a curfew and we have a surveillance officer check on them."
Cahill said one of the team's key people is Shannon Spellman, who provides the therapy for the juveniles. She is with Veritas Counseling Center of Phoenix.
"We help them take responsibility for their behavior and how it has interfered with their lives and the lives of the people around them," Spellman said. In addition to the therapy sessions, the juveniles and their parents must also attend 12-step meetings, she said.
"They go to meetings, build a support system of non-using friends and learn to have fun without drugs and alcohol," Spellman said.
Cahill said the young people who fail to succeed in drug court are those who become disengaged from the process.
The juvenile participants and their families are expected to maintain a lifestyle change throughout the extent of the program and to promote this continued lifestyle for the juvenile.
The program was started a number of years ago, but then discontinued. It has been operating in Payson for about a year, Bunker said.
For more information, contact the Gila County Juvenile Probation Department at (928) 474-2242 or Spellman at (928) 474-3504.