Juvenile offenders get new option

By Ed Brock

There was a time when 16-year-old Kris Pipps got in fights in school and then into more trouble after the dismissal bell rang.

That changed three years ago when he started going to Georgia Community Services Program Inc.'s after school program called "The Hook."

"When I started it was to play basketball, but I found out later on it keeps me out of trouble," Pipps said.

Now GCSP has been selected to host the county's first Evening Reporting Center, part of a new program developed by Clayton County Juvenile Court as an alternative for some offenders to incarceration in a youth detention center.

"I think Clayton County is lucky to have already operating in the county vendors who can provide these services," said Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske, the developer of the ERC program.

The three ERCs Teske plans to open are part of the court's FAST (Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment) START (Stabilization Through Assessment Recommendation and Treatment) program. The FAST START program tries to separate the worst offenders from the youths who are first time or moderate offenders. For the latter, the program provides detention alternatives like the ERCs.

Teske said that the ERC at the GCSP facility at New Mount Calvary Methodist Church on Reynold's Road in Morrow is scheduled to open today and last week he was selecting candidates for the program. As soon as the financing has been arranged they will open ERCs at The Empowerment Project in Riverdale and Youth Advocacy Support Services Foundation, Inc., in Lovejoy.

When the program gets under way about 10 high school and middle school youths who have been defined as moderate risk offenders will be assigned to a center. The GCSP center will serve students from Forest Park and Morrow schools.

Each day from 3:30 to 4:15 p.m. the youths will be picked up from their homes and brought to the ERC where they will stay until 8 or 9 p.m.

"During that period of time they will do their homework, receive tutoring and they will go through an educational curriculum that includes pro-social issues," Teske said.

There will also be some recreation and a dinner, Teske said.

That's not dissimilar to what GCSP already does with the youths in their program. Specifically, they target young people who, because of their grades or behavior, are not allowed to play sports at school, GCSP Project Director Dometrice Scandrick said.

That's the hook that gives the after school program its name, Scandrick said.

"The hook is that they're coming for the recreation but it's mandatory that they have an hour tutorial," Scandrick said. "While they're in the program they're expected to improve their grade point average and their attendance in order to participate in the recreation."

Scandrick and her husband, the Rev. Michael Scandrick, have been operating the program for two years and when Teske approached her about hosting the ERC it seemed like a natural fit.

"We found out a lot of the students we were working with were involved in the court system," Scandrick said.

The ERC students will be in a separate program from Scandrick's and overseen, initially, by juvenile court officers. Eventually Teske hopes to recruit enough volunteer court officers to replace the regular officers in supervising the ERCs.

Teske and Juvenile Court Chief Judge K. Van Banke traveled to Chicago recently in October to study a similar system there that is the model for Clayton County's program. They learned several things, such as the fact that providing transportation for the offenders to and from the program is more than a convenience but also reduces the potential for delinquent activity.

The Chicago program has also made inroads in fighting gang activity, Banke said.

"The youths make their own decision to break away from the gangs and the gangs don't fight it," Banke said.

Locally, Teske said the statistics show that the detention alternative programs they already have in place have led to fewer youths being detained unnecessarily, which means a better allocation of resources. The high-risk offenders can be dealt with more effectively because there are fewer youths in the detention center as low to medium risk offenders are placed in alternative programs like the ERCs.

Currently the FAST START program includes a panel of volunteers who review juvenile cases to determine the reason for an offender's behavior and to make suggestions on their treatment. It also includes the use of a Detention Screening Instrument to screen youths being brought to the Regional Youth Detention Center in Lovejoy that determines the level of risk the youth presents and whether they should be detained.

The money for the programs will come initially from supervision fees charged by the court and collected from the offenders. Teske and Banke are also re-engineering the alternative detention money they receive from the state's Department of Juvenile Justice to finance the program in the future, so the court will not have to take money from its budget.

Alternative detention programs have two benefits for the community. First, they monitor the youths so they won't offend again in the short term, and secondly the training and pro-social education provided in the programs encourage the youths not to offend again in the long term.

"By adding these evening reporting centers we actually increase the security of the community," Teske said. "With some of the kids we may want to do a combination of things."

Pipps said the GCSP program is definitely a good place to start the new program.

"If it kept me out of trouble it should keep them out of trouble," Pipps said.

Those interested in being volunteer juvenile court officers must have no criminal history, at least a high school diploma, be 21 or older, have a desire to work with young people and must be willing to commit to eight weeks of training along with the regular work at the ERC. The training sessions will be held once a week for eight weeks at the juvenile court offices in Jonesboro.

To sign up, call Geneine Lewis at (770) 477-3260.

GCSP also needs volunteer and paid tutors, and for information on that call Scandrick at (404) 925-1750.