Officials have high hopes for local juvenile services

By Bob Paslay

As much as $300,000 a year could be coming to Clayton County for services to work with children and keep them out of jail.

This next step in a continuing effort to find alternatives to slapping juveniles in jail could put the county at the forefront of this effort statewide, officials said Wednesday.

This federal money will be coming every year and is not a grant, Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said. After expected approval from key officials, the money could start flowing in October when the federal fiscal year begins.

Currently there is money in the county budget for salaries and buildings, but none for these types of programs that will identify ways to divert children from automatic lockup and work with them. Children on the road to trouble will be identified and helped.

A who's who of judges, law officers and others who daily deal with juvenile issues came together Wednesday at the Youth Empowerment Project building in Riverdale to review what is working and where the county goes from here.

District Attorney Bob Keller told 75 key officials and volunteers attending the session that he is looking to use the juvenile program as a model for dealing with some nonviolent adult offenders.

Chief Juvenile Court Judge K. Van Banke said the changes are putting Clayton County at the forefront of dealing with juveniles in a way that works and helps keep them from coming back into the juvenile system.

He said this will be "21st Century Justice" versus some Georgia counties in which a judge puts children in jail for 10 days awaiting a hearing with the words, "Boy, you're in a heap of trouble."

Chief Superior Court Judge Stephen Boswell said the entire court system in the county supports the effort to address the juvenile delinquent and criminal problem.

He said the youths are "the most vital resource we have in this country" and he said he is tired of reading that "society in the country is going downhill."

Teske, a 43-year-old father of three and a former pardons and paroles official, said, "This program is not about releasing violent kids back on the streets."

Instead, he said it is about assessing the level of risk the juvenile has and finding alternatives to putting the low-risk ones in jail with the older high-risk ones.

When this happens, the high-risk ones often victimize the younger children or teach them about becoming criminals.

"Being tough on crime is not locking up kids," he said. It is changing the kids so they won't commit future crimes."

At the foundation of the change is having a system to evaluate the youths and make recommendations. This assures that the offender gets a proper balance of punishment and treatment that will keep him or her from coming back through the system.

It also assures that any imbalance based on race or ethnic makeup is taken out of the system, the judge said.

Teske pointed to the Portland, Ore., effort that employed the techniques that are going to be used in Clayton County.

From 1994 to 2002, the number of youths there referred to the juvenile court system plummeted from 6,662 to 3,776, he said. And the rate of children coming back into the system was also cut about in half.

Attempts to find better ways to change youths is nothing new, but he said some of the efforts in the past have been miserable failures.

For example, he said the boot camp concept, in which teens were forced to get up at 5 a.m. and were ordered around and screamed at like military recruits, produced the wrong results.

What you came out with were not youths turning away from crime, but "more disciplined criminals and delinquents who were more polite."

But a program that works is one started in Clayton County in November 2001 to deal with school fights in which the offenders were not automatically put in jail, but were put in diversion programs. So far, 859 students have been through the program. The rate of youths in trouble in school getting in more trouble was reduced from 30 percent to 9 percent, he said.

Teske said the key to all juvenile programs working is a team effort by law enforcement, the courts, social workers, volunteers, the schools and the detention center.

Suzanne Luker, state coordinator for the Children and Youth Coordinating Council's Georgia Detention Alternatives Initiative, said after the session that the fact that all of these various agencies were represented Wednesday indicates a desire to work together and assure the program rescues children.