The Importance of Juvenile Drug Treatment Court

The Bencher—July/August 2022

By Judge Joseph L. Fernandes and Sabine A. Glocker, Esquire

In 1995, in response to the success of adult drug treatment courts, juvenile drug treatment courts began emerging as a promising new model to help promote the rehabilitative focus of the juvenile justice system and aid in reducing adult criminality. Estimates suggest that substance abuse and related crime cost the U.S. $820 billion to $3.4 trillion annually. When youth become entangled in substance abuse and delinquency prior to adulthood, they run a substantial risk of continuing this behavior into adulthood and suffering the consequences not only for themselves, but their families and their communities. However, research suggests early intervention is likely to aid in juveniles becoming productive members of adult society and leading more prosperous lives.

Juvenile drug treatment courts (JDTCs) are one such method of not only preventing the financial burdens of adult criminality and substance abuse, but also improving the lives of youth nationwide. While somewhat difficult to conduct methodologically rigorous empirical studies on JDTCs, what research has been done suggests that JDTCs are an effective and positive method for reducing contacts with the juvenile justice system, reducing contacts with adult criminal courts once participants reach adulthood, and generally improving the lives of participants.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released its Juvenile Drug Treatment Court Guidelines in 2016, in response to the need for research-informed guidelines to promote efficacy in these programs and encourage high-quality service delivery for substance-abusing youth. The guidelines explained that approximately half of the juveniles entering the juvenile justice system have problems related to drugs and alcohol. However, the point of JDTCs is to focus on treatment for youth with substance use disorders, so the number of eligible youths is lower than the number of drug- or alcohol-related charges seen in juvenile courts. The federal guidelines detailed seven objectives with a number of guidelines nested beneath each objective. For instance, Objective 2 was to “ensure equitable treatment for all youth by adhering to eligibility criteria and conducting an initial screening.” Additionally, Guideline 2.1 states that the eligibility criteria for a JDTC program should include youth age 14 or older with a substance use disorder and moderate to high risk of reoffending. The objectives span from the qualifications of team members and requisite standards for assessment tools to the types of treatment methods that should be used within the programs and what data should be collected.

Over 25 years after the development of the first JDTC in the United States, more than 400 counties operate these programs. They exist in a vast array of jurisdictions, all operating with the goal of reducing youth contacts with the juvenile justice system, and subsequently the adult criminal system, and generally improving the lives of youth so they can become more productive members of society. JDTC programs are operated everywhere from small jurisdictions such as Trumbull County, Ohio, with fewer than 200,000 residents, to large jurisdictions such as Los Angeles County, California, with more than 10 million people.

Many programs began prior to the development and release of the federal guidelines, but the general idea behind the programs and the broad eligibility criteria are similar across jurisdictions and in line with the guidelines. Typically, eligible youth are ages 14 to 17, while the occasional program allows youth as young as 12 (Daviess County, Kentucky) or 13 (Nassau County, New York). Juveniles typically cannot have violent or sexual offenses charged at the time of program consideration or in their history (although some counties, such as Clark County, Nevada, will assess these instances on a case-by-case basis, allowing some youth with those charges into the programs).

Some programs have a specific list of charged offenses eligible for the program (Palm Beach County, Florida), while others allow a broader array of offenses as long as the juvenile has been found to have a substance abuse disorder (Cuyahoga County, Ohio). Some place restrictions on the specific drug-related offenses allowed into the program, such as Santa Clara County, California, which does not permit juveniles convicted for selling more than $100 of drugs. Others work with repeat offenders specifically, such as Oakland County, Michigan, whose JDTC program website states the program is for “youth who are non-violent repeat offenders [who] have been charged with drug, alcohol, or related offenses.”

Often youth get only one shot at a JDTC, such as in Santa Clara County, California, whose website specifically states that to be eligible youth must not have attended drug court before. Youth and their families also usually need to agree to participate in the program, and the programs are typically voluntarily.

We are from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and are a judge of the Court of Common Pleas and his judicial law clerk. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, JDTCs are referred to as Juvenile Treatment Courts (JTCs), and five counties have such programs: Philadelphia, Lackawanna, Northumberland, York, and Blair counties. Philadelphia County’s First Judicial District is among the largest state courts in the U.S. According to the 2020 Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission’s Juvenile Court Annual Report, 1,955 delinquency allegations were brought in Philadelphia County, with 1,502 resulting in dispositions. This number is down due to a variety of reasons, including changes in arrest policies and the COVID-19 pandemic. While these and other factors generally resulted in a reduction of crime across all offense types, according to the report, drug offenses saw a smaller decrease than other offenses. In 2019, 2,664 delinquency allegations were filed in Philadelphia County, and 349 were drug offenses. In 2020, 266 of the 1,955 filed allegations were drug-related offenses.

While the 2021 report has not been published yet, given the percentages of past years, it is safe to estimate that roughly 13 to 14% of delinquency allegations in 2021 were likely drug related. The JTC program of the Philadelphia Family Court can provide and extend services to many youth. Courage, motivation, and leadership are needed from all local juvenile justice stakeholders for the program to continue to be an excellent diversion program for pre-adjudication youth in Philadelphia County. As of February 2022, Judge Joseph Fernandes was appointed the new presiding judge for the Philadelphia Family Court JTC program. With the end of the pandemic in sight, the goal is to re-focus and extend JTC services to assist as many Philadelphia youth as possible.

The JTC programs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are certified in compliance with the federal guidelines and adhere to Pennsylvania’s principles of balanced and restorative justice: 1) community protection, in which the citizens of the Commonwealth have a right to a safe and secure community; 2) accountability, in which a juvenile incurs an obligation to the victim and the community to be accountable for his or her delinquent actions; and 3) youth redemption, which embodies the belief that juveniles are capable of change and earning redemption. This last principle focuses on competency development, in which juveniles entering the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system should leave the system as more responsible and productive members of the community, and on individualization, where it is acknowledged that each case in the juvenile system has unique circumstances and that the response must be individually tailored based upon assessment of all relevant information and factors.

The Pennsylvania JTC programs provide continual judicial supervision and services for substance abuse, mental health, primary care, and family, education, vocational, and social development. The JTCs also coordinate and supervise the delivery of support services the juveniles need to address the problems that contributed to their involvement in the justice system.

The Philadelphia Family Court JTC program permits youth ages 14 to 17, with no serious mental health problems other than an identified need for substance abuse treatment, with no more than two prior adjudications, and no current or prior violent or firearm charges to seek services. Juveniles are interviewed by court intake workers, and those who admit to drug use or who indicate a likely use of drugs are then referred to the Clinical Evaluation Unit for a substance abuse assessment to determine need for treatment. Once accepted into the program, the juvenile is placed on deferred adjudication. When the juvenile successfully completes the program, the charges are dismissed, and if the juvenile continues to be arrest and drug free for another 12 months following completion of the program, the record of these charges will be expunged entirely. Juveniles come to court for review hearings bi-weekly for the first two phases of the program, and once entering the third phase, their court attendance may be reduced. The program further contains a graduated process of rewards and responses to ensure the juvenile continues complying with the program and has a positive and successful outcome.

Despite the fact that JDTCs are a benefit for the individual youth and society at large, the local community stakeholders, particularly the defense bar and the prosecutor’s office, must reach a consensus on whether a juvenile is eligible to enter the Philadelphia County JTC program. The Juvenile Court, through the presiding judge and treatment providers, will always be a critical component. Among the many roles of the presiding judge, it is the role of community energizer and champion of the court that is critical for a JDTC/JTC to function efficiently and be offered as an alternative diversion program to the juvenile arrested for drug offenses.

The principal of balanced and restorative justice requires the juvenile justice stakeholders to play a large role throughout the JTC process. One of the challenges to the presiding judge is how to engage the juvenile justice stakeholders. Of paramount importance is changing the mindset of how the prosecution and defense looks at the culture of juvenile justice whereby drug treatment courts are still a viable diversion program that would benefit everyone. It is imperative that the prosecution and defense carry out their roles in a way that benefits the individual juvenile, vis-à-vis JTC programming. In the not too recent past, there have been many reforms and initiatives to reduce crime and jail populations and to enforce various drug laws. However, the need for evidence-based drug treatment has actually risen, not diminished. The good news in Philadelphia County is that the Family Court Juvenile Drug Treatment Program is ready and available with the capacity to offer its services as long as court-involved youth are being considered for and offered the opportunity to participate in the program.

Research has shown that evidence-based drug treatment is effective and suggests that addressing drug issues as a juvenile is very effective at reducing drug issues in adulthood. The Philadelphia Family Court JTC program has a long history of success since its inception in 2004. It is an evidence-based program and certified as a problem-solving court by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Juveniles continue to graduate from the program, benefiting not only themselves but their families and local communities too. The City and County of Philadelphia reaps the benefits on a daily basis because the successful graduates of the JTC have received drug treatment and life skills, likely completed their education, and possibly obtained employment, making them more productive members of society upon reaching adulthood. This success is rooted in the philosophy of “restorative justice,” the spirit of which is housed in the purpose clause of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act.

Judge Joseph L. Fernandes of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is assigned to the Family Court Juvenile Branch, Dependency and Delinquency areas, and additionally presides over Juvenile Drug Treatment Court. He is a member of the Nicholas Cipriani American Inn of Court. Sabine A. Glocker, Esquire, is a 2019 graduate of Drexel University Kline School of Law’s accelerated JD-program in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and also holds a master of science in forensic psychology. She currently serves as judicial law clerk to Fernandes.

© 2022 Judge Joseph L. Fernandes and Sabine A. Glocker, Esquire. This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.