- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - Hamilton County officials are starting a drug court specifically aimed at juvenile offenders.

Jennifer Thomas, who will be the drug court coordinator, said the main focus is rehabilitating youth.

“The ultimate goal is to provide another avenue for our juveniles before we say ‘we can’t do anything else’ and they become adult offenders,” Thomas said.

The Hamilton court will be the sixth one in the state to focus on juvenile drug offenders. Staff at the court studied other programs, including those in Bradley, Knox and Davidson counties, as they began to form the one in Hamilton.

According to Hamilton County Juvenile Court data, there were 201 drug charges filed last year in juvenile court.

It will be similar to the Hamilton County drug court model in that participants with criminal charges must plead before entering the program, they must stay in treatment and they are subject to testing.

“There is a need,” said Hamilton County Drug Court Coordinator Elaine Kelly, adding that the average age of beginning drug use among addicts is 12.

Early intervention could help, but she said it will be more difficult to work with juveniles.

“We get people who are broken, who’ve lost everything,” Kelly said.

Many in the program have a “last chance” mentality that is a strong motivation.

Juvenile Court Magistrate Kathy will take on the drug court docket when the first class forms.

“It’s kind of uncharted territory in Hamilton County,” Clark said. “The focus will be a collaborative approach to that problem. And it will be unique in a lot of ways.”

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, https://www.timesfreepress.com

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