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CYC-Online Issue 6 JULY 1999 / BACK
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JUVENILE JUSTICE

Sentenced to sustained, intensive television?

Marshall Ingwerson

An incisive viewpoint expressed at the beginning of this decade on youth programs which “keep the kids occupied" but which utterly fail to address real rehabilitation needs. How different are things today?

As an assistant Florida State Attorney, Tom Petersen spent 1985-89 on leave, working as a sort of entrepreneur-idealist in Dade County's most troubled neighbourhoods. He achieved national recognition for turning empty community centres in public housing projects into convenience marts which employ welfare mothers and establish healthy centres of enterprise and activity.

In 1990 Mr Petersen was named a juvenile court judge here. Still candid and innovative, Judge Petersen was again tinkering with bureaucracy and trying to make it work. In a Christian Science Monitor interview at the time he said he found the juvenile justice system to be a bureaucratic facade that ultimately offers only “sustained intensive television" instead of rehabilitation. The interview ...
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What happens to young people in the juvenile justice system?
Not very much happens one way or another. Traditionally the argument is between punishment versus rehabilitation. But here (in Dade County) we don't do either one. The longest time a kid can spend in a program is 90 days, and what's the program? They sit there and watch TV. Recidivism (failure) rates are 80%.

Say I'm 16 and I steal a car. What happens to me?
The first car is free. After that the next time a kid comes through he cleans the park. The kids don't really clean parks. I know that. By the third time, you're talking about sustained, intensive television.

Could it be different?
Yeah, it could. We could be involving universities, community groups. While these guys are sitting there they could put on a play, charge admission, script their own television show.
A lot of these are creative kids, but we'll never know it.

What's expected of them is that they won't disrupt the institution – no more than that. That perpetuates the institution. It doesn't do anything for the kids.

Has the public come to doubt that such programs work?
Yeah, and we're confirming it. It's a self fulfilling prophecy. When I first came here as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer, there was a lot of excitement about government. We were integrating things (racially). What has happened 25 years later is we've learned that black, white and brown – we all burn out. We've lost our energy. There's no money like in the '60s to reinvigorate the system. It sometimes seems that the only people who believe that the system can effect drastic change are the kids. Matthew means it when he says he not going to get in trouble again – but he will, because he's going right back into the same bad situation.

So what works?
Ironically, that little Teen Cuisine program is one of the most encouraging thing we've got. (In Teen Cuisine, Petersen has convicted juveniles work under a professional manager to provide the food service in the Dade County Juvenile Justice Centre.) We treat them like human beings. These kids have long records but we don't have any trouble with them. They don't run off or anything.

The best way to change behaviour is with economic incentives. We learned that with women on welfare in the marts (set up in housing projects to serve and employ residents). When you pay people, you change their behaviour.

Why aren't there more Teen Cuisines?
It's hard for governments to start programs like that. It involves handling money. We wanted to make Teen Cuisine part of the (Florida Health and Rehabilitative Services) program, but a lot of little rules blocked doing thing like that. They never get excited about new ideas. They're so defensive.

I go back to the pay cheque theory of human development. You don't get extra pay to go out and recruit the drama graduate student to put on the play. You need incentives and encouragement from above.

Where did things go wrong?
The juvenile system is based on the ideas of thirty years ago: Johnny is off the track; let's get Johnny back together again. But these kids are the product of whole neighbourhoods off the track. We really run our juvenile justice system on semantics. Half-way houses used to mean something: half-way between incarceration and a place in the community. In reality, they're not half-way between anything. We call them half-way houses because it sounds good.

So it's all a facade?
It comes back to power relationships. The kids don't have the power. Neither do the case managers. The kids are either patronised or intimidated. The sad thing about saying that, is that a lot of the people who work in the system care a great deal – especially the case managers – with case loads of 200. They get crushed by these things, too.

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