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GENTLER JUSTICE FOR TEEN DRUG USERS?

Teenage drug users who live within Salt Lake's city limits may get a kinder justice than teens arrested on drug charges in the rest of the state.

The city has received a $150,000 grant it wants to use to create a "drug court" that would help first-time drug offenders and second-time alcohol offenders in the city.Approximately 400 Salt Lake teenagers are expected to participate in the program, said Don Leither, chief of intake services for the 3rd District Juvenile Court.

If teens admit their offense, they will be allowed to make a contract with a juvenile judge outlining the teen's obligations. If the teens honor that contract, which includes participating in intensive treatment and close supervision by trackers, the charges will be dismissed after six months.

During those six months, the teens will be subjected to random drug testing and must appear six times before the judge or administrator managing their case.

This concept of intensive supervision and treatment for first-time teen drug offenders originated in Florida, said Richard Schwermer, assistant state court administrator. The city's grant money would be used to hire screeners and trackers to select and monitor the teens.

The qualified teens will be selected, in part, by their ZIP code, Leither said. Only teens with Salt Lake ZIP codes will be eligible.

The catch: A state law requires juvenile judges to revoke the drivers' licenses of first-time drug offenders. The 3rd District Juvenile Court officials designing this program don't want to do that with these kids.

But they are worried that lawmakers may not let the drug court ignore that mandatory sentence. "They were pretty adamant about not monkeying with these mandatory sentences," 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Sharon McCully told the Judicial Council on Friday.

The practice of taking a guilty plea, holding it in abeyance for a period of time, then dismissing the charge if a defendant follows court orders goes on all the time, she said. But because of the mandatory license revocation, courts haven't done it with teen drug users.

"I think it's important to give the Legislature a `heads up' on this," recommended Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman, chairman of the Judicial Council.

"So do we," McCully said. "Frankly, if there's a lot of opposition, we won't do it." Instead, thejudges would revoke Salt Lake teens' licenses as the state law requires.

The judges plan to meet with legislative leadership in the coming weeks to explain the program to them. The city's grant is part of a comprehensive communities program.