When one is so used to hearing only the bad news, it was encouraging to come across the crop of good news stories about service agencies going the extra mile for troublesome kids
Pride putting juvenile offenders back on track
About two years ago, 15-year-old Wesley Smith was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after shooting a BB gun at a tractor with someone in it.
Friday, Smith, who is cruising through high school with a 3.0 GPA, was honored with an award from the East Bakersfield Kiwanis Club for turning his life around and staying out of trouble. Smith and six other teenagers were honored at a ceremony to dismiss their cases at the Juvenile Justice Center in Bakersfield.
Family and friends, judges and probation officers and other members of the community celebrated their graduation from the Pride Academy and Repeat Offender Prevention Program, with Judge Michael Bush presiding.
Romie Wilson, 15, said the program made her “realize my life was heading in the wrong direction and I'm straightening out more." Wilson, who was arrested for fighting, now plans to go to college and is interested in becoming a nurse.
Smith, Wilson, David Gonzalez, Chantha Proeung, Luis Ruvalcaba, Jonathon Alvarez, all from Bakersfield, and Perla Aguilar of Delano, were all recommended for the two first-offender programs within the Kern County Probation Department to get off probation. The teens have worked hard for about two years to pull up their grades, improve their behavior at home and school, have a positive impact on the community and prove to their parents and probation officers that they are good kids.
The Pride Academy and repeat offender program, both two-year stints, helped the teens get on the right path and away from a life of drugs, delinquent behavior and truancy by having probation officers keep close contact with them, track them through school and visit their homes. The teens had mentors, visited colleges, went to sporting events and took part in cultural activities like going to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Pride Academy is a day-school program, while the repeat offender program entails intensive supervision and family involvement. Both programs are a collaborative effort between Kern County schools, the Kern County Mental Health Department, and the probation department and help keep caseloads low so the officers have more contact with the students.
The repeat offender program is funded by a grant from the state and the probation department, and Pride Academy is funded through Kern County Superintendent of Schools.
All the teens who completed the programs have plans to continue high school, and most plan to go on to college. Chantha Proeung, 15, has his sights set on UCLA.
He said the program has taught him responsibility, such as having to check in with his probation officer when he leaves home. The program, he said, “makes you not want to do bad stuff, because you know if you do, you're going to get cuffed."
The other teens had the same sentiment.
"I've matured," said Luis Ruvalcaba, 16. “I don't feel like (breaking the law). It's not worth it." He said by hanging out with the probation officers, going to hockey games and other activities, he's “starting thinking about life."
Over the last three years, about 20 youth have
completed the program, Kern County Probation Supervisor Patrick Flores
"We just wanted everyone to know how well these kids have done, to recognize how hard they've worked to get to this point," Flores said.
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PAL programs deter repeat offenders
A park may be one of Sarasota County's strongest deterrents against juvenile crime. The Knights Trail Park is home to the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department firing range and the training ground for students in Police Athletic League (PAL) outreach programs and CAMP X-RAYD (eXamine Reality About Your Decisions).
Go there and you'll be given a set of rules, find yourself rubbing noses with an obstacle course and, if you don't know the correct spelling of the word “team," learn it. Fast.
The programs were formed to provide at-risk youth with information and experiences to make good choices to lead productive lives. Venice High's Beth Holcomb, the school's Jobs for Florida's Graduates specialist, requested her students be involved with the outreach program.
"I wanted to involve my students in as many team activities as possible," Holcomb said. “My job is to put them into the workplace after school. They are going to have to work with other people that they don't necessarily get along with."
Wednesday morning, Holcomb's group of 30 students scaled walls, climbed ropes or ran for miles to use team-building skills. Holcomb joined detectives Mark Pezella, John Helme and John Cox. “We're not just jumping into things," Pezella said. “Everything we do is for a reason."
The Police Athletic League of Sarasota County was formed in 1988 to provide a safe environment for kids while developing positive relationships between kids and law enforcement. Now PAL has at least nine different programs to benefit youth.
"We know each other and trust each other," said VHS student Kristina Reilly after a workout with Holcomb's group. “But today, we were really close. Discipline, working together and teamwork came out of today's work."
Camp X-RAYD and the outreach training programs are two that have been developed since March 2002. The programs are gaining popularity. “We are inundated with calls about X-RAYD," said Detective Mark Pezella. “It's not a boot camp. The program is really about challenging themselves."
Camp X-RAYD is provided for juvenile first offenders. The 12-hour day begins when participants arrive at the sheriff's training center and change into jail uniforms. They are drug tested, then led through physical training and team building exercises. During the afternoon, the participants are taken of a tour of reality that includes:
Being taken to the Sarasota County Jail as inmates.
Receiving a tour of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Emergency Room to experience medical trauma and death. Participants are taught the process of administering charcoal and pumping out drugs from someone who has overdosed.
Going to the medical examiner's office to see the steps taken if a drug overdose turns fatal.
Since the program's inception, 103 kids have gone through Camp X-RAYD. The rate of repeat juvenile offenders in the county has decreased from 33 percent to 7.5 percent.
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Youthful offenders clean up
Kids do community service in place of juvenile hall. Forty kids who might otherwise have been spending time in detention instead accomplished something productive for themselves and the city.
The 12- to 17-year-olds, wards of the San Bernardino County Probation Department, helped the City of Rialto's Code Enforcement Department by cleaning up around a crime-infested and litter-strewn condominium complex on north Eucalyptus Avenue on Saturday.
"They do really good work," said David Hernandez, one of two code enforcement officers for the city. The youngsters working around the units were participants in the county's Bridges Probation Program that provides weekend community service and mentoring in lieu of detention. Many of the kids were first-time offenders, convicted of crimes such as burglary or assault and sentenced to weekend community service by a judge.
Drug and gang activity has plagued the dilapidated 36-unit condominium complex over the years, Hernandez said. Saturday was no different as police found evidence of crack cocaine use at one of four abandoned and ransacked condos. Last year, an officer-involved shooting occurred at the complex. Still, the work was better than the alternative for the young wards.
"This is a thousand times better than being in juvie," said a 17-year-old San Bernardino youth on his third and last weekend of work. His name was withheld by probation officers.
Rialto has used the Bridges program to help with repairs and cleanup at commercial and residential sites for the past year-and-a-half, Hernandez said. “If more cities used this program, it could really reduce blight."
The youngsters help out not only at rundown residential and commercial sites, but also lend a hand to elderly residents through the county's Department of Aging and Adult Services, said county probation officer Ron Brewington.
"We go to the homes of the elderly to see what we can do. Some older residents are unable to care for their yards, clean up trash, or accomplish minor repairs, Brewington said. From 80 to 100 kids show up each weekend to fulfill their community service requirements. Working with the elderly helps instill a sense of compassion in the the kids. In addition to a dose of hard work, the youngsters are also exposed to a little mentoring on the part of probation and other officers. We talk to them. It's not just a lot of discipline."
Bridges Program kids helped Rialto clean up at about 30 sites last year, Hernandez said. But that was only the beginning. “This year we hope to make 50," he said.
Adolescent program gets overhaul
During an anger-management group counseling session, Kimberly Clark, a counselor at the Adolescent Offender Program run by the Madison County Court, tries to get teens to pull from their personal experiences to identify causes and effects in situations.
"An idle mind is the devil's workshop" may be advice from another era, but it's Sarah Beard's modus operandi.
Faced with the task of revamping Madison County's Adolescent Offender Program, Beard has hired staff and set to work with a passion to shepherd young people away from a life of crime.
The Adolescent Offender Program, which is funded by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, is one of only a dozen or so in the state. The goal is to identify youths who are at high risk for committing more serious crimes and to provide intensive intervention for them and their families through social and educational services. The Madison County program serves up to 15 nonviolent offenders.
Operable for only a year in Madison County, the program nearly went belly up last August when former director William Stewart resigned, the majority of the staff quit and classes for youths were put on hold.
In November, Madison County supervisors hired Beard, formerly an assistant vice president of academic affairs at Tougaloo College. The program is getting back on its feet, offering counseling, tutoring and encouragement.
During Christmas break, for example, the youths cleaned up the streets of Canton and toured the State Penitentiary at Parchman for a taste of life behind bars.
"We hope that seeing the plight of the young people incarcerated there will help them avoid it," Beard said. Madison County Court Judge William Agin said counselors try to instill in participants a sense of success and the belief that their lives can amount to something.
"When you're trying to turn this type of behavior around, you're not proposing immediate success, but long term. That's why we run it year-round," Agin said.
The program was created for nonviolent offenders, many of whom won't go to school or have gotten involved in petty crimes such as shoplifting. The age range is from 12 to 17. The number of participants is limited to about 15 because of the extensive one-on-one time counselors spend with each child.
When an adolescent comes before Agin, the judge has the option of sentencing the youth to a state training school, giving him juvenile detention or sending him through the Adolescent Offender Program.
Youths spend two hours after school in classes at the Canton Education Center, a part of the Canton school district. There they are tutored and taught behavioral skills.
Counselor Kimberly Clark brings a unique perspective to the program. “I'm a product of the foster care system," she said. “I invest a lot of energy in this. “They are a promising age group because you can still do something for them. Their lives can be impacted."
Beard said her job has been an eye-opening, rewarding experience. “I was in education, but felt I wanted to do something more. This was an opportunity to directly impact the lives of young people," she said. “They need people to show them some concern. If they can see a light at the end of the tunnel, can open up and talk about things we can help them with, that's a break-through," the former college administrator said.
Program's plan is to help youth
A teen-age boy stood in front of Judge William Reingold of Forsyth District Court yesterday and told him that he wanted to participate in a new program to help juvenile offenders.
"I think it will make a difference," the boy told Reingold. “It will help me get rid of my old, bad habits."
The boy was one of four juvenile offenders who were accepted into the Forsyth County Juvenile Treatment Program. Reingold, the chief judge for District Court, presided over their hearing.
Reingold listened to the boy and then said: “I understand that people who stand in front of me often tell me what I want to hear. But, I will take your word. We will work with you."
The program will provide court supervision and work with offenders and their parents to get the juveniles off drugs and help them stay in school.
The offenders have to be between 13 and 151/2 at the time they enter the program, and they will participate for 12 to 18 months.
Defense lawyers, school officials, law-enforcement officers and human-service officials will work with the young people. Forsyth County court officials received a grant of more than $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2002 to operate the program, said Gene Williams, the program's director.
The teen-agers are nonviolent offenders who have abused illegal drugs. They have pleaded guilty to an offense in juvenile court and have been put on probation, said Tim Severo, the assistant district attorney who will handle the juveniles' cases.
The program is designed to handle up to 25 juvenile offenders. Each participant must undergo drug screening twice a week. Reingold said that participants' commitment to the program would be first judged by the results of their drug tests.
"The first step is get them clean," he said.
Reingold explained the program to each offender and reviewed the conditions of their probation. Afterward, he shook their hands and gave them a handbook about the program. He told them and three of their parents that the program is intended to help juvenile offenders stop using drugs and be successful in school. “We are going to look at everything that is going on in your life," Reingold told the offenders. “We all look forward to working with you and help you succeed. We are not trying to set you up to fail."
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Youth Diversion Program considered model for province
An old program created in Kingston is gaining new respect, province-wide, now that laws for young offenders have changed. The goal at Youth Diversion is one that is envied throughout Ontario, explains Daren Dougall, the executive director of the volunteer-driven organization.
With the new Youth Criminal Justice Act coming into effect in April, police, social and youth workers will work towards keeping young people out of the courts and jail and instead, steer them in a positive direction “something that Youth Diversion has been doing for nearly three decades.
"It's exciting," Dougall says of the new direction in law. “And it's confirmation of the work we've been doing for 30 years right here."
Some of the key people behind the new legislation helped launch Youth Diversion in the 1970s, explains Dougall, including former family court Judge George Thomson and Queen's faculty of law professor Dick Barnhorst.
"We are held up as a model program," says a pleased director. “We're the oldest in Ontario, one of the forerunners in Canada, with only Quebec beginning a similar initiative earlier than us." The director believes the program is in a good position to make the transition with the new legislation. He also foresees a busier year.
From an average of 50 – 60 young people per year in the beginning, the program now sees about 500 young people who take part in one of five programs offered throughout Frontenac and Lennox & Addington counties.
Not all young people are facing criminal charges, the director explains. “We've really broadened our range," he points out, going from a young offenders only mandate to children who are at-risk, experiencing behavioural problems at school or at home. “Years ago, people didn't want to talk about young offenders," he says of the early days. “We were tucked away, it was all hush-hush." Now, the organization takes a proactive, preventive approach in reaching at-risk youth, and often involves parents. Community awareness is also on the upswing.
Young people take part in a number of programs, including Rebound, a 10-week life skills program which helps young people 12 – 17 practice and reinforce good alternatives.
"It gives young people an opportunity to make positive changes," says Dougall, before they spiral into serious problems.
Kids who are suspended from school, for instance, can forget about getting a couple of stay-out-of-school free days. Through the Student in Need Attendance Program, “We work with these students to develop skills so they're not going to get suspended again," says Dougall.
Other programs include alternative measures, community service orders and mentoring. Dougall expects the number of youth coming into programs will rise once the new legislation takes effect. It also means the programs will need more volunteers, he says, and “probably enhanced training for volunteers."
That's how he got started almost 20 years ago, mentoring with a teenager who came from a “rough family" and could easily have taken the wrong path.
Instead, the teen is now a family man, holding a respectable job, owning his home and comfortable with “a few toys in the garage," says Dougall. “He's just fine."
Community support makes such a difference in the lives of young people, Dougall insists. “When they come in and see how dedicated our volunteers are, that they are giving their time and making a commitment – and not getting paid for it – it is totally foreign to them. Once they realize this, it changes their perspective." And, notes the director, “these are difficult, challenging kids."
Volunteers, ranging in age from 17 to 77, are the backbone of the organization. “They make a difference." Youth Diversion has an annual budget of $200,000. About half comes from the provincial government. The balance comes from both local public and separate school boards (each of which make use of Youth Diversion services), City of Kingston, The Trillium Foundation plus business and individual donations.
Lynn Rees Lambert
Forum to promote teenage courts
Conference set for Friday to reignite interest in program. Youth advocates, educators, juvenile justice professionals and community leaders are expected to converge at a conference center in Raymond this week in an effort to reignite interest in teen courts.
Touted as an alternative method of dealing with youth offenders, the program, which allows teens to dish out punishment to their peers, had gained popularity in Mississippi several years ago.
However, lack of funding and staffing woes caused some programs, including two in Hinds County, to falter.
Organizers of the state's first Mississippi Teen Court Forum say their goal is to educate participants on how the program can benefit their community and teach them how to build programs in their own communities.
The free forum, sponsored by the Mississippi Bar Young Lawyers Division Child Advocacy Committee and the Mississippi attorney general's office, is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at Eagle Ridge Conference Center in Raymond.
"We are hoping through this program to bridge the gap that exists between the various organizations in an effort to provide an alternative to not only the children, but the communities in which they live,"Jennifer Riley-Collins, committee chair of the Young Lawyers Division Child Advocacy Committee, said in a news release.
While all the cases in teen court are handled by teenagers, the cases and punishments are real.
Teen courts are designed to steer first-time offenders who commit minor infractions back on track.
The belief is that the teens are more inclined to take the matter seriously if their punishment is given by their peers.
Patricia Colwell, planning and development director for the Hinds County Human Resource Agency, said she supports any effort to bring teen courts back to forefront.
"I am totally 100 percent in support of any effort to try and bring teen courts back into the picture," said Colwell, whose rural Hinds County-based program died after losing most of its funding. “No one will be able to do it without money. We depended on the bar association and the Young Lawyers heavily. We couldn't have done it without them. So hopefully, at least part of this statewide effort will bring some attention to the need for funding."
Don Sullivan, interim executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, agreed.
After Sullivan's organization underwent staffing cuts, he said the Jackson-based teen court program could no longer be operated.
"Teen courts is a great concept," Sullivan said. “It deals with nonviolent offenders and gives the youths a chance to show redeeming behavior. It allows offenders whose offenses don't cry out for swift and sure punishment to go before a jury of their peers trained in the concepts of jurisprudence."
Sullivan said he often witnessed those appearing before a teen court receiving punishment much harsher than those given by judges in traditional courts.
"It has been successful in many ways," Sullivan said.