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Bar News - February 23, 2007

New Approach to Juvenile Justice Ends Revolving Door



I’ve been a lawyer for 26 years and a judge for 19. Until four years ago I was a witness to, and a participant in, a broken juvenile justice system, a revolving door for young people and their families that cycled them ineffectively through the system without truly addressing their underlying problems.


Few members of the general public are aware that more than half of the youth involved with New Hampshire’s juvenile justice system also have a problem with substance abuse. Those of us who are judges assigned to juvenile court see them regularly.


Punishment alone will not cure a young person’s substance abuse problem. Our traditional systems are often ill-prepared to deal effectively with these young people and the problems they present. The services delivered are often fragmented and uncoordinated. All too frequently substance abuse and mental health issues go hand in hand, making accessible, effective, and well-coordinated services even more important.


From my bench at the Nashua District Court, the problem was obvious. But the solution was not. Many things frustrated me. The approaches we prescribed to help these young people to become productive members of the community were not based upon a professional assessment of their individual needs, but rather on what services were available to us.


We often found there was little local treatment available for young people with substance abuse and/or mental health problems. For lack of an alternative, we often sent kids who could, and should, have been treated for substance abuse or mental health issues within our community to intensive inpatient treatment, often at a cost of $50,000 to $100,000 to the state.


As a result, juveniles were uprooted from their families and the community, not properly treated, then returned to their communities without proper support, and the cycle began again for the juvenile and the judiciary.


I understand my role as a judge, but I am not an educator, a probation officer, a treatment professional or a community advocate. The young people I see in the courtroom need the support and expertise of people outside the judicial system to become substance-free, crime-free, productive members of society. They need professional support, community support and family support. It has to be effectively coordinated and monitored. But this was not being accomplished—until recently.


Four years ago, the “Reclaiming Futures” juvenile justice initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation selected New Hampshire as one of its 10 demonstration sites in the United States. Our selection was almost contemporaneous with our state’s decision to pilot “drug courts” for juveniles in Nashua, Concord, Plymouth and Belknap County. That’s when we began to make changes in the way we work with these young people using the Reclaiming Futures model.


Reclaiming Futures assembled an array of experts, both from within the juvenile justice system and outside of it, to help us create a new “strength based” juvenile justice model, which includes treatment and accountability for the juveniles.


As a result, in our court in Nashua, and the other drug courts in the state (which have recently expanded to Claremont and Derry) we have adopted a comprehensive, team-based approach for juveniles who are assigned to us. The “treatment team” includes representatives from the community, service providers, probation and the court. The team meets weekly to discuss the individual treatment plan for every young person under our supervision, its implementation, the juvenile’s compliance with it and recommendations for improving upon it.


The youth, their parents, their probation officer, defense attorney and the prosecutor attend weekly hearings before the court. The focus of these hearings is the implementation of all provisions of the youth’s plan, which is monitored, adjusted and enforced as needed.


Youth are typically involved with the court for nine months before they “graduate” and the team follows them for three months of “after-care” following that.


During this time, I get to know the juveniles and their families. We use positive reinforcement, encourage pro-social behavior and focus on the strengths that these young people possess in order to help them overcome their weaknesses.


I feel that we’ve stopped the revolving door. I’m seeing a marked improvement from where we were. The accomplishments made by these young people are gratifying to themselves, their families, those of us who work with them, the community and their peers. They don’t all succeed, but more do today than did four years ago.


Why the success? These are remarkable young people and families who are now being connected to a strong team of professionals, and most importantly, connected to a community that is forgiving their transgressions, embracing their strengths and their potential and holding them accountable for pro-social behavior.


In creating the first juvenile court in 1999, Chicago area officials wrote, “Youth are everyone’s responsibility. Few youths are beyond reform and youth are developmentally distinct from adults.”


I couldn’t put it better today. I’m proud to be part of a juvenile justice system in our state that now recognizes this and is beginning to assemble community resources to treat these young people as well as to hold them accountable for their behavior.


Judge Thomas Bamberger of the Nashua District Court has worked in the judiciary, academia and private practice. Besides Reclaiming Futures and the New Hampshire Juvenile Drug Court Initiative, he is involved in the New Hampshire Court Improvement Project and Care New Hampshire.


Reprinted with permission from the NH Business Review Oct. 13-26, 2006.



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