Judge helped many teen addicts

EVERETT — There was no question the kid messed up a lot.

He was disruptive and was made to sit far away from the others in the Juvenile Offender Drug Court. At first, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry had doubts whether the 17-year-old would make it through the rigid program for young addicts.

A few weeks ago, Castleberry was walking down a stairwell at Denney Juvenile Justice Center when the same young man greeted him, excitedly pulled him aside and showed off the plaque and gift certificate he earned as a “most improved” student in a school program.

“It’s obvious he’s proud of his accomplishments,” Castleberry said, smiling.

This is just one example of the personal satisfaction Castleberry has taken from the program, which has seen most of 135 teenagers change their ways and beat a drug or alcohol problem that could have started them on a life of crime.

“The real reward is on an individual basis,” Castleberry said. “You get immense satisfaction with personal contact of people in the program.”

Among the graduates, crime that used to be a frequent occurrence has come to a screeching halt.

Of the 135 drug court graduates, only four are known to have committed new felonies. Up to eight times as many who go through a state-run drug program for teens commit new crimes, Castleberry said.

Castleberry is the third Snohomish County judge to take the reins of the program. He took over from Judge Charles French three years ago after French died in office. Castleberry is scheduled to rotate out of the post with his last session this afternoon. Judge Eric Lucas will take over.

Eighty teens have graduated under Castleberry’s watch.

The man who started the drug court in 1999, retired Judge Joseph Thibodeau, said that Castleberry has high praise.

“Ron has taken it to another level,” Thibodeau said. “He has increased the numbers (in the program) and the success rate is still high with more kids.”

Castleberry credited Thibo­deau with giving him a sound foundation and having a strong and caring team around him to help make the decisions.

The judge in charge is a father figure to all kids in the program, and some more than others.

“Some of them never had fathers,” Thibodeau said.

Drug court is not for those who want to take the easy way out.

The youths must be in appropriate drug treatment, join a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, attend drug court once a week and stay in school or get a job.

They are subject to urinalysis tests for drug use, and any violations of those rules result in sanctions that include time in work crews and time in detention.

“In the vast majority of cases, they spend more time in detention with sanctions than they would have if they had come in and pleaded guilty” to a crime, Castleberry said.

There also are incentives.

Keeping clean and doing everything they’re supposed to do will win praise in drug court and earn kids certificates of achievement, or even small gift certificates for food.

Castleberry’s team consists of probation officers, both a defense attorney and prosecutor; treatment providers; and a school liaison. The group reviews possible candidates for the program, and then looks at how each kid in the program is doing every week.

The emphasis is reaching a consensus from the group, Castleberry said.

Often the candidates initially say they want to get off drugs to avoid a felony rap.

“Often by the end of the program they realize the benefits of the program,” and really straighten around, Castleberry said.

Castleberry is tough.

He doesn’t allow excuses for missed appointments. He holds youngsters in the program accountable and tries to instill personal responsibility.

“You see kids who did not accept responsibility come to accept responsibility for their own actions and don’t blame other people,” Castleberry said.

Stepping aside is bittersweet for Castleberry.

He’s gotten to know the teens. He wants them to succeed.

“Yet there comes a time and new ideas should come in,” he said. “You can see growth in the kids. Trust me; it’s not always in a straight line.”

One girl did spectacularly until just before graduation. She repeatedly flunked several urinalysis tests at the end, each time causing her to spend additional time in the program.

“Some are really afraid to leave the program,” Castleberry said. “They need a good support network.”

A drug court alumnae group is under consideration to help with that support.

Other graduates have succeeded and gone on to college. One drug court graduate is now a teacher.

Castleberry wants the lessons learned in drug court to help guide graduates, give them tools to succeed in life.

“I will miss the kids,” he said. “I really will.”

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or jhaley@heraldnet.com.

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