Is Kentucky Sentencing Kids to "Life or Meth?"

By: Don McNay
By: Don McNay

I walked by a car in a parking lot that had a sticker on it that read, "Drug Courts Work." They don't work in Kentucky, anymore. At least, not for juveniles. The state has shut down the juvenile drug court program.

"People don't you understand, the child needs a helping hand."

- Elvis Presley.

I walked by a car in a parking lot that had a sticker on it that read, "Drug Courts Work."
 
They don't work in Kentucky, anymore.  At least, not for juveniles.  The state has shut down the juvenile drug court program.
 
The savings is a $1.5 million.  In a multi-billion dollar budget, that is less than what the government spends on ink cartridges.
 
Kentucky, like all states, is facing an economic crisis that is causing politicians to make tough choices. It's easy to see why juvenile drug courts are a juicy target. 
 
Juveniles don't vote.
 
I feel a bit guilty.  In 2008, I was going to write a column about the drug court in Madison County, where I live.  The A&E network did a program called "Life or Meth,"   featuring Madison County District Judge Brandy Brown and Drug Court Coordinator Anna Beth Hardiman.
 
"Life or Meth" won an Emmy for the A&E network.  It is a powerful and heart grabbing documentary. 
 
That fall, I spoke to Judge Brown and Ms. Hardiman and got the inside scoop on the drug courts.  I saw how they truly work.  The financial crisis hit at the same time and I never got back to the drug court column.
 
I wish I had.
 
I never dreamed that the Commonwealth of Kentucky would drop the Drug Court program.   It was one of most efficient ways to spend tax dollars we had.
 
A little money spent on drug courts now can save us huge amounts for the juveniles we won't have in our prisons later.
 
If you get a child on the right path, you at least have a shot of helping them have a productive life later. 
 
Trying to get a 40-year old to kick a life of addiction is much tougher.
 
Some of us had pretty wild childhoods, but had teachers and parents who stepped up to steer us on the right path.
 
Others aren't as lucky.
 
By the time a child makes it to drug court, it is often a "last chance" situation.  The "Life or Meth" TV program showed Brown and Hardiman as the quasi-parental figures that the kids needed in their lives.
 
It's easy to say that the kids should be getting that kind of supervision at home.  They usually aren't.  Many of the children in drug court come from households where the parents, themselves, have substance problems.
 
Children should not automatically pay for the sins of the father.  Or mother.  The cycle has to stop somewhere.  
 
If it doesn't, Kentucky is going to pay for generations to come.
 
My friend, Al Smith, recently spoke to Judge Phillip Shepherd's drug court in Frankfort.  Al spent the first part of his life as an alcoholic and is spending the last part making an incredible impact on society as a journalist and civic activist.
 
He is a wonderful role model for the drug court graduates.   He told me that hearing the success stories of those in the drug court program inspired and touched him, as well.
 
We won't be seeing those inspired and motivated children next year.  Drug Court is dead and buried.
 
When government is doing what it is supposed to do, it is making a community a better place to live. Regardless of whether viewed from an economic perspective or from the perspectives of crime prevention, or long-term planning or economic modeling, drug courts represented money well spent.
 
Spending money on children is a politician's dilemma.    As noted, children don't vote.
 
From an immediate impact standpoint, you can see why education and programs aimed at juveniles wind up being cut. 
 
As a politician, if you spend money on educating a first grader, the results are not going to be felt for a generation or more.   You might not be around for the finish and some other politician might undo the good work you've done.
 
If you allocate money to build a road or a building, it has an immediate impact everyone can see.  No one is going to come along behind you and tear down a road or building.
 
With so many politicians focused only the next election, we are lucky that education gets the funding that it does.
 
The success of drug court is probably hard to measure from a statistical standpoint.  
 
The courts are dealing with children who have had problems.  Some are going to fall off the wagon.  Programs have to focus on success stories and not on failures.
 
I've seen the success story in my city.  The person who had the "Drug Courts Work" sticker on their car must have had a reason for believing in its success.    
 
There is obviously a constituency for drug court, but that constituency is not being heard.  At least, not by the budget makers.
 
As John F. Kennedy noted, "History is the final judge of deeds."
 
How is history going to judge Kentucky's decision to drop drug courts?
 
I suspect historians will conclude that Kentucky sentenced a generation to "Life or Meth."

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