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Low enrollment endangers drug court's funding

Six months after the program for juvenile offenders was launched, only three teens are participating.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 13, 2002


INVERNESS -- It started with a $400,000 federal grant and high hopes for stamping out drug use among Citrus County teens.

But just six months after county officials launched a drug court aimed specifically at juvenile offenders, the program is floundering. Only three teens are now participating, far fewer than the 50 originally anticipated.

Now, the federal government has sent a letter threatening to revoke the program's funding unless organizers can quickly boost enrollment. They have until Friday to send a corrective action plan to the U.S. Department of Justice or their grant may be in jeopardy.

"Failure to submit this plan as required, and failure to make sufficient progress toward increasing your participant numbers, will affect access to your grant funds until you come into compliance," the June 28 letter states.

Coordinators of the juvenile drug court have held a series of meetings the past few weeks to discuss ways to increase the number of participants. Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas, who oversees the juvenile drug court, said they plan to expand the number of offenses that will qualify a teen for the program.

Initially, they would only accept those charged with possession, she said. Now, teens caught stealing or committing burglary to pay for a drug habit could land in juvenile drug court.

"As long as there is a drug connection, it's appropriate," Thomas said.

But Assistant State Attorney Jeffery Smith said that, even using the new guidelines, he doesn't think Citrus County has enough juvenile drug addicts to justify the program.

"If you look at my court docket, I don't have 50 drug cases, let alone 50 kids who would qualify for the drug court," said Smith, who prosecutes the county's juvenile cases.

Juvenile drug court is an alternative to incarceration for children ages 10 to 17 who show signs of substance abuse. The program is modeled on the county's adult drug court, a rigorous, 18-month program open to nonviolent offenders who commit drug-related crimes.

However, the juvenile version is shorter in length by six months and focuses more on treatment than punishment.

It was launched with a grant provided by the Bush administration, which has promised to set up drug courts nationwide and enhance current programs. Citrus was one of four Florida counties to receive funding.

Smith and other members of the State Attorney's Office have expressed concern about the juvenile drug court since its inception, raising questions about the need for another court alternative in the county. In addition to the two drug courts, there is also a teen court for young misdemeanor offenders.

But it was the Ryan Connell case that truly soured Smith on the juvenile drug court program, he said.

Connell was accused of being the driver of the car in which Citrus County sheriff's deputies found a pipe filled with marijuana residue and three "joints," or marijuana cigarettes.

But Connell was really a passenger. The driver, who also owned the car, later admitted ownership of the drugs, Smith said.

By the time the error was detected, Connell had pleaded no contest to a charge of possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana. He was sent to Teen Court, where he tested positive for marijuana and, at Smith's recommendation, was sent to juvenile drug court.

Smith appeared before both Judge Thomas and Judge Ric A. Howard and sought to have Connell released from juvenile drug court. Both requests were denied.

Connell was finally booted from the program May 30 after a confrontation between his parents and drug court organizers.

"That never should have happened," Smith said. "The whole thing was wrong."

Connell's father, Scott, accused officials of trying to trap his son in the program to boost the number of participants. He said the program was too disruptive because his son had to miss school to attend multiple therapy sessions, court visits and drug tests. Scott Connell and his wife also had to skip work to attend sessions with their son.

But another parent of a juvenile drug court participant said the sacrifice is worth it for his son.

Frank Rice said his 17-year-old son was spinning out of control until he began the program about six months ago. Now, he's getting ready to take his GED test and wants to join the U.S. Navy as a cook.

"They get the child into a productive situation where they can actually accomplish something," Rice said.

His son was put in drug court after he was caught with prescription medication at school. Rice said his son was a drug addict, and a violent one.

He credits the counseling sessions with helping both him and his son.

"They can be very firm, but they're very dedicated to the children," Rice said. "And through that dedication, they show compassion."

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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