FAST START program reducing recidivism

By Ed Brock

Deborah Swank says she never completely gives up hope on any of the high-risk juvenile offenders who come to her Hearts to Nourish program in Forest Park.

Sometimes she does have to send them away until they are willing to make a change in themselves, Swank said, and sometimes even then they surprise her.

"A year later or six months, I've even had two years later the kids call me up and say you know, Ms. Debbie, you were right. I'm ready to come back," Swank said.

Swank's organization is part of some new programs that are decreasing the recidivism rate in Clayton County Juvenile Court.

In 2004 the recidivist rates for juvenile probationers reached a low of 15 percent, according to Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske. That's a 50 percent reduction that began after the implementation of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative in 2001 and the FAST Panel in 2003.

The purpose of both programs is to divert low risk youthful offenders away from probation and incarceration where they might learn more criminal behavior from serious offenders.

The detention rate has also gone down 44 percent since the creation of the FAST Panel and the correlative use of the Detention Screening Instrument. The number of offenders who reoffend while awaiting trial or sentencing has gone down by 50 percent.

Teske attributes this to better alternative programs such as electronic monitoring, wrap around services, evening reporting centers, behavior aides, multi-systemic therapy programs and greater monitoring of the youth.

Hearts to Nourish, which began 10 years ago as part of a collaborative effort with Juvenile Court, is operating an evening reporting center as part of the program. In that capacity the program supervises juvenile offenders for a period of time after school and before they go home, a system Teske implemented after seeing similar systems at work in the suburban areas around Chicago.

"The evening reporting center becomes a safe haven for youth in trouble and especially those with gang affiliation," Teske said.

Swank said many of the youths who come to her program say they expect to be dead or in jail by the time they're 21 anyway so they want to take all they can get right now. She tries to show them that they can make a choice with their lives and that they have support.

"There are certain kids who do need to be secured to keep themselves safe and to keep the community safe," Swank said. "But I think there are lots of kids who, if they have an alternative to detention where there's accountability and supervision, there's a lot that can be done."

The Governor's Children and Youth Coordinating Council, on which Teske is a representative, recently awarded Swank's organization a $46,440 grant to support her program. The council also gave a $50,000 grant to Prevention Plus Inc. and Forest Park Street School for a Community Educational Technology Lab. The purpose of the lab is to provide computer training for high-risk juvenile offenders and their families who may need it, said Marybeth Leavell, director of Prevention Plus.

The approach allows the youth and their parents to increase their ability to succeed in the work place. And after the training the participants get to keep the computer on which they trained. Tech Corps of Georgia, a partner agency of Prevention Plus, buys the computers from companies that are upgrading, refurbishes the machines and then gives them to programs like Prevention Plus.

Leavell said the Community Educational Technology Lab is a multi-level approach to the problem of juvenile crime.

"More often than not kids act out because there are situations in the family that allow them to act out," Leavell said.

As a side effect of diverting the low-risk offenders, Teske said, the caseload of the court's probation officers was reduced from approximately 150 cases per officer in 2001 to 40 for each officer today.

The court also adopted a "broken windows" model of probation designed by the American Probation and Parole Association in which the officers do more field supervision work. This is different from the old "bunker" approach in which the officers stayed in the office.

"We do not want to see our probation officers in the office unless to complete paperwork," Teske said. "Their real office is in the homes, schools and hangouts of the youth they are charged to watch."

Reducing recidivism among high-risk offenders requires constant supervision, Teske also said.

Teske's programs have also been winning awards, like the Howard K. Ables Award Teske received from the Georgia Juvenile Service Association's 36 annual conference Last week.

While Teske has been coordinating the new programs he said their success has stemmed also from the support he received from Juvenile Court Chief Judge K. Van Banke and Judge Tracy Graham.

"None of this would be possible if my fellow judges hadn't realized this needed to be done," Teske said. "They too had the vision."