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Officials seeking alternatives to detention
See success in collaboration on juveniles' cases

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

More than five years after the first meeting, the county agencies collaborating on issues of juvenile detention still ask the same core question.

"How do you keep kids out of detention while keeping the community safe?" said Adolphus Graves, Detention Alternative Coordinator for the county's juvenile court. "Basically, how can we create a better system of care for the children who come into contact with each of us at our separate agencies."

Graves spoke at a multi-agency lunch on Thursday, outlining the history of the county's delinquency initiatives and giving an update on new efforts. Graves said the dramatic success, since the county's first collaborative meeting in May 2003, shows "there's no limit to what we can accomplish."

In 2003, seven groups got together with the juvenile judges and established the Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment (FAST) panel. The panel meets three times a week, with representatives from the court, the Department of Family and Children Services, The Clayton Center for Behavioral Health Services, Rainbow House, Inc., Clayton County Public Schools, the District Attorney's Office, the defense attorneys and volunteer citizens. The panel reviews juveniles who have been detained, considering them case-by-case, scoring them, and looking for ways to reduce detentions and juvenile recidivism.

"It's not that we're letting everyone run amok on the streets," Graves said, "but if detention is our only tool to modify behavior, then we will probably just be spinning our wheels and getting nothing done."

According to Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske, detention often seems like a simple solution, but the system is easily overloaded and children who are relatively minor offenders are being turned into delinquents. But, with detention, he said, the probability of graduation decreases and the probability of continuing criminal and anti-social behavior increases.

Alternatives to detention give children a way out, a way towardsrehabilitation, but costs the county a lot of cooperation, and a commitment of resources.

"That's our biggest issue, because that's a resource issue," the judge said.

When the groups started working together in 2003, though, Teske saw everyone was willing to work together, seemingly waiting for a way to work together, and the county moved through all six stages of setting up a collaborative, detention-reduction group in nine months.

Today, the county's collaboration is seen as a model, Graves said. Programs put in place by the multi-agency organization include, conflict workshops, which has a non-recidivism rate of about 84 percent, and Project HIP, which has a non-recidivism rate of 74 percent.

Graves told those gathered at the lunch these numbers show the county is not "just spinning its wheels." The juvenile court is sometimes accused of not detaining delinquents -- "'Y'all just let all the kids go,'" Graves quoted the critics as saying. "'Y'all don't care about the community. We bring them to you and you just let them go.'" -- but Graves sees the decline in detentions as part of a real solution.

Since starting the collaborative effort, according to Graves' statistics, the county has seen a sharp decline in detention rates and a related decline in rates of recidivism. In 2002, the average daily population of the county's detained juveniles was about 120. By 2004, the year after the first efforts at working together, that number had dropped to about 30. Five years later, the county's population of detained juveniles averages out at about 21 per day.

In 2002, recidivism rates for county juveniles was at almost 30 percent. By 2004, the recidivism rate had declined to about 15 percent, and in the last few years has fluctuated between 15 and 20 percent.

"Don't just be limited to what has been set up already," Graves said. "We always have to ask, 'Could I try something different? Could I do something different?'"