Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part opinion piece written by Judge Teske. Part one appeared in this space Tuesday.
James and Matthew — the boys who robbed Henry, a pizza deliveryman, at gun point — stood in court telling him they were sorry as they wiped the tears from their eyes. With my permission, Henry walked to the bar, reached across and shook the boys’ hands, and said in a soft voice, “I forgive you.” Henry also had tears. Despite his plea not to send them to prison, he has accepted their fate — a fate pretty much accepted in custom and practice — prison.
A transfer from adult court made the offense a designated felony in juvenile court, making them eligible to serve from one to five years in a youth development campus. These places have razor wire fences. Let’s not mince words: They are prisons.
Henry’s plea for a second chance made me think about the impact of incarceration on youth in the United States and in Georgia.
Countless studies have shown that detention is ineffective at treating kids and reducing recidivism; in fact, a number of well-designed studies suggest that correctional placements actually exacerbate criminality. Why should we be surprised? Consider the following facts about our youth facilities across America.
According to a 2008 study, the United States detained children at a rate five times that of other Western nations, despite a violent crime rate only marginally higher than those nations. According to the FBI, only 12 percent of the nearly 150,000 delinquent youth placed in facilities were there because they committed violent crimes. Why do we let our anger get in the way of being smart? When are the adults going to grow up?
Since 1970, systemic violence, abuse and/or excessive use of isolation or restraint have been documented in juvenile facilities of 39 states. In at least 22 states, there is evidence of continued mistreatment since 2000.
Georgia, where my juvenile court is located, is no exception. Investigations are currently unfolding at youth detention centers in the state. We are fortunate to have leadership responding in a transparent fashion — to get to the truth — no matter how horrible! This is how we reform juvenile justice in Georgia, or anywhere.
Not only are we mixing non-violent youth with the violent, many of them are documented with mental health disorders including learning and emotional behavior disorders.
One study revealed that the rate of detention was nearly three times that of the general population. Despite the exorbitant daily costs to house these kids, most facilities are ill-prepared to address the needs of many confined youth. It should be no surprise that 30 percent have attempted suicide, 70 percent have seen someone severely injured or killed, and 72 percent had something very bad or terrible happen to them.
In contrast, and the most compelling, is a 2009 analysis of 361 studies that determined that the strongest results are achieved by community programs employing therapeutic counseling, skill building and case management approaches which have worked to reduced recidivism by at least 12 percent.
So I did the unthinkable. I released James and Matthew, but to a program that made their home and school a prison. Inspired by Henry’s words, I named it the Second Chance Program.
With the help of the Department of Juvenile Justice and our local System of Care, we quickly constructed an intensive program for high-risk designated felons. James, Matthew and all designated felons chosen for this program are placed under house arrest for up to six months with GPS monitoring. We know where they are at all times.
One of the keys to reducing recidivism is breaking up the delinquent network — their anti-social peers. The cognitive shift needed for these boys to turn from a delinquent attitude demands a disconnect from delinquent influences.
Without this first step, all the good treatment and good programming is pretty much worthless. Despite today’s technology with GPS tracking, I am perplexed we still use detention — a more expensive option — as a default for community protection, especially given the fact that only about 12 percent are incarcerated for violent offenses.
The irony is that we say to ourselves it is needed to get them away from a “bad environment,” but yet we send them to a facility full of delinquent kids, the best training school for delinquency.
They attend an evening reporting center each day after school, and over the next year they undergo intensive behavioral training that includes cognitive restructuring, substance abuse counseling, life skills training, job readiness, weekly drug tests and family functional therapy.
They come to court every Tuesday night to make a report and the parents must attend. They are, after all, the key. They too undergo parental counseling to develop skills to manage their child. The first Tuesday of every month they must dress in business attire. After six months they begin the phase down period. After one year, they are transferred to regular probation — provided they have demonstrated a change in thinking and behavior.
James made it. Matthew did not.
Here’s the kicker: If you get revoked, the sentence is five years. Matthew violated his house arrest. The community and the survival of the program require harsh responses to serious violations. These kids are not average probationers subject to traditional graduated sanctions.
James? Well, it’s been more than two years and he is about to graduate high school after having excelled in all classes, joined ROTC, enjoyed most sports and rescued a bus driver from an attack. Now he is set to enter the armed forces this summer.
I haven’t admitted another adult transfer since James and Matthew — and may never again — although the other judges have and they are doing very well.
Given what we know about the recidivism rates of kids sent to youth prisons across the country, 50 percent and higher re-offend within two years compared to 32 to 37 percent for similarly situated kids placed in community programs with evidence-based programming.
So far, the Second Chance Program has a 36 percent revocation rate. I said “revocation” not “recidivism.” About a third of the revocations did not involve new offenses — they involved violating house arrest — public safety is foremost.
It’s still early to make claims of success, but the outcomes are promising. Kids once gangbanging and committing robberies and burglaries are now making honor roll, working, taking SAT tests and college prep classes, and not using drugs.
More promising is that over half of them would have returned from prison to commit a crime, and now it looks like they won’t.