Drug Courts – pt. 3

Part 3 in a serial describing what happens inside New Hampshire's drug courts.

In Nashua’s juvenile drug court, a few weeks after Vaughan welcomed White into his drug court, Judge Thomas Bamberger was doing the same for a 16-year-old boy. White’s induction into drug court had been a lengthy one, accompanied by repeated questions, required by law, to make sure White knew what he was doing.  White had surrendered all of his legal rights in order to be admitted.  In Nashua, Bamberger’s welcome was shorter and more direct. 

“Let me tell you a little about my view of drug court,” he said.  “Zero tolerance.”

“If for a moment you don’t believe that,” he continued, “you’re deathly wrong.  If you disobey my orders, the consequences are immediate and in some cases quite severe.  One day you could find yourself walking out of here in handcuffs.  Do you understand?”

Adult and juvenile drug courts have a number of differences. In fact, some adult court staff are skeptical that their juvenile counterparts can be successful, since they must also deal with intensely dysfunctional families and parents. Sending a teenager back into such an environment seems certain to bring a return to drugs, the skeptics say. The staff of juvenile drug court respond that those are some of the obstacles they are designed to deal with.

Bamberger’s court occupies a scuff-marked, windowless room with one long table in front of his bench and a single row of blue plastic chairs for participants, parents and a few others who attend.  It has none of the newness of Vaughan’s courtroom.  Physically, it is as far removed from Vaughan’s courtroom as possible.  What happens in juvenile drug courts can also seem as different from the adult courts, as well.  Lawyers can be present for the juveniles, arguing against sanctions that parole officers recommend for relapses or other violations, and sometimes it appears that the teenagers are getting away with things that would earn adults an immediate trip to jail.  But for all the differences, juvenile drug courts share the approach of getting involved in participants’ lives in order to help them change.

 On a fall afternoon after school had let out, Bamberger pressed a girl sitting before him, “Anything else going on in your life?  You sure?  It feels like there’s more going on here.”

The truth came out when Bamberger had the girl and her mother stay after all the other participants had left.  The utilities were being shut off at home, and the mother was an alcoholic.  “I’m pregnant, and I can’t afford the bills,” the mother said.

Bamberger, who is in his 60s and has a full head of white hair, told the girl he had the power to sanction her for misbehaving, but “that does not mean people don’t care about you, love and support you.  If you need something, let me know.  I’ll do my best to make sure it happens.”  Then he turned to the mother.  “It’s a tough time for you too, mom.  Let the probation officer know and we’ll get you help, too.”  Even so, as the two left his courtroom Bamberger said to Tino Lopez, his Juvenile Probation and Parole Officer, “Something tells me, there’s something more going on there.  We’ve got to get her into counseling.”

A Miami, Florida judge started the first drug court in 1989 in the midst of the crack epidemic. While hardly perfect, it cleaned up enough nonviolent drug offenders to impress other judges. Today, there are 2,369 such courts across the United States, including some that focus on mentally ill offenders, DWI offenders, veterans and other specific groups.

New Hampshire’s drug courts got their start in 2001 after a two-year-long study by judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others on how one alternative, drug court, could be adopted here. Two adult drug courts exist in New Hampshire, at nearly opposite ends of the state in Grafton and Strafford counties. There are also seven juvenile drug courts, most of which only have three or fewer participants. The busiest juvenile drug courts are in Nashua, Concord and Laconia.

Bamberger helped lead New Hampshire’s drug court movement because he saw traditional court failing this group of juveniles.  Bamberger has spent two years as president of the association of New England Drug Court Professionals.

 Like other judges, he alternates between encouraging, cajoling and rebuking his young charges, as necessary.  He also uses his judicial power to compel others to do what’s necessary.  A week after the private session, Bamberger would order the mother to submit to daily breathalyzer tests. [V]  At another session, a treatment provider told him that local schools were moving as slow as molasses in testing one girl for learning disabilities.  Bamberger said, “Molasses isn’t good enough for me,” and issued an order for the schools to comply. 

 In October Bamberger would compliment one girl for completing the first phase of her treatment program.  He wanted her to do something, he said.  In a whining voice filled with teenage dread the girl asked, “Is it going to be writing a paper?” 

 No, Bamberger said, “I want you to stand in front of a mirror and tell yourself you’re proud of yourself.  There’s a lot to be proud of, not the least of which is learning the skills you’ll need down the road.”  If she hit a rough patch in the future, he continued, “You can say, I did this before, I can do it again.”


(Photo: Creative Commons: Charlotte Segurel)

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