Editor’s note: Names of juvenile court participants have been changed to protect their anonymity.
It was no cakewalk, but for one teen, undergoing a year of intensive therapy and frequent status hearings at Payson’s juvenile drug court has turned her life around. And on Monday, the 17-year-old was rewarded for 230 sober days with — a cake.
“Two years ago I wouldn’t have believed I would be graduating from drug court today,” Ashley said. “I didn’t have anything to live for before and now I know what I want out of life. I want to help others. I have a lot to give.”
A residual marijuana user for years, Ashley was in trouble more times than not. Angry and unable to control her impulses, Ashley found herself headed down a dark path.
Then Ashley was admitted into the juvenile drug court program, a unique experience that takes arguing attorneys and detached judges out of the mix and incorporates intensive therapy to rehabilitate instead of punishing youth.
“This program turns everything that is bad about court upside down,” said Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill.
In normal legal proceedings, the courts are taxed with documenting failures and escalating sanctions for refractions. In drug court, a judge participates, meeting weekly with participants for updates.
Attorneys, therapists and probation officers “work together as a team,” Cahill said.
Around the country, there are hundreds of adult and juvenile drug courts. In Arizona, 11 of the 15 counties have drug court.
The success of drug courts is well documented.
“Research verifies that no other justice intervention can rival the results produced by drug courts. According to more than a decade of research, drug courts significantly improve substance abuse treatment outcomes, substantially reduce crime and produce greater cost benefits than any other justice strategy,” according to a report from the National Drug Control Policy.
Four independent meta-analyses concluded that drug courts reduce crime rates on average 7 percent to 14 percent.
Since juvenile drug court started in Gila County in 2004, 45 teens have participated in Payson with 14 graduating. In Globe, out of 92 participants, 21 have graduated.
“Of our 14 Payson graduates, we believe only two have re-offended. An incredible statistic considering that at the beginning, each of these kids was diagnosed as a drug-dependent delinquent getting into increasing trouble,” Cahill said.
The drug court program spans four stages, usually taking participants on average three to four months to complete each stage.
Participants, who are between the ages of 16 to 18, are required to attend two hours of counseling and group therapy a week, as well as undergo frequent, random drug tests.
If participants are found using, they are punished within a week, normally to 24 to 48 hours detention in the Globe detention facility.
While the first two phases involve intensive court supervision and counseling, the last stages focus on personal responsibility including at school, home, and work.
Along the way, either probation officer Erwin Diaz or probation surveillance officer Dan McKeen monitor participants’ activities and drug use.
Counselors Doug McDaniel and Audrey Vasquez work with participants and their families to address the issues underlying substance abuse, including mental health and family problems.
Upon completion of the program, participants are rewarded with a graduation ceremony. Ashley’s grandfather said he has seen a remarkable change in his granddaughter since she started.
“My granddaughter was in trouble,” he said. “She was in with the wrong friends.”
After therapy, the man said Ashley has straightened her life out, attending school regularly and working part time.
“I am tickled to death” to see her graduate, he said.
Ashley’s graduation on Monday was Payson’s first juvenile drug court graduate in a year.
At her graduation, Ashley said she not only quit drugs — she learned to respect herself.
“Drugs are not a way to express myself, drugs are a quick fix for emotions. Drugs are also a block to happiness — drugs are a life blocker.”
Diaz said he was sad to see the only girl in the program graduate, but was proud of the hard work she had put in to finish.
This year, Ashley is working as a peer counselor.
“I am finally proud of the person I am. You can’t make a new beginning, but you can make a brand new ending.”
“Everyone here can do it,” Cahill said to a room full of current participants and their parents.
Before Monday’s graduation ceremony, Cahill held juvenile drug court, speaking with half a dozen participants.
Each participant took their turn sitting in front of Cahill with their parent or guardian. Each was asked about their week with prosecutor Patti Wortman and defense counsel Elizabeth Flynn (who was absent) sitting on the side.
“What’s going on?” Cahill asked Brian.
“Absolutely nothing,” Brian said.
“Is that good?” Cahill said.
“Yeah,” Brian said, I am 36 days clean and sober.
Another participant, Adam, said he was not doing great.
Failing to turn in his hours (a document showing the number of classes and therapy sessions he attended) and missing curfew, Adam was falling back into trouble.
Cahill explained curfew is in place to keep Adam out of trouble.
“This is time when kids get in trouble. When they are walking home and bump into their friends,” he said. “We have a curfew for a good reason. You are not likely to use when you are home with your dad or at school.
“If you are doped up and feeling depressed, it is hard to do good in school.”
Charles, whose son Tony is in the program and currently at Park Place Outreach and Counseling said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Tony’s recovery.
Speaking to all participants, Cahill said they could achieve what Ashley has if they stick with the program.