Weekly Notes: More on Beyond Scared Straight; OJJDP’s Plan for 2011; and more

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***Episode one of the A&E documentary “Beyond Scared Straight” is in the books. The seven-episode series will follow juveniles and at-risk youths who are taken to adult prison for a taste of what could await them if they don’t change their behavior.

Many in the juvenile justice community are angry that A&E chose to air the series, because of the poor showing scared straight programs have had in just about every  attempt to measure them methodically. The controversy was covered in a Wednesday story;  click here for that story.

Last night’s episode looked at a program for girls at California’s Valley State Prison. Of course, JJ Today tuned in to watch. A couple of random thoughts:

*From a purely artistic standpoint, the show was pretty good. Shapiro and his crew do a good job letting the audience get to know the girls right away, then keep the show moving along throughout the visit. The first episode peaks emotionally when Cecilia, one of the girls visiting Valley State, sees her mom in the yard as they are being escorted into a wing of the prison. She had just seen her mother on the outside, and was not aware that she had gone back to prison again.

*It’s easy to see how this show, like the 1978 documentary “Scared Straight!”, could quickly lead to a groundswell of new programs. Most of the girls in episode one are clearly on the visit because their parents begged for it. In one case, a 17-year-old named Emily, the mother turned her in for probation violations, leading to a stay in juvenile hall.

How many parents can relate to being at their wit’s end with a directionless, argumentative teen? Plenty. Most of them wouldn’t involve the police and the juvenile justice system formally in a family struggle for control, but you can see why a parent would jump at the chance to get their wayward child a visit to the big house.

The logic is clear from the parent’s view: “Prison is what I fear for you but cannot make you see, so you have to see it for yourself.”

As reported Wednesday, there already is one state where the juvenile justice director has been approached by state legislators about developing a scared straight program.

***We interviewed Georgia juvenile justice specialist Joe Vignati for our story on scared straight earlier this week, and asked if he might submit some thoughts on the first episode. His take:

“Last night I heard a lot about ‘teaching these girls respect.’ Do we really want to teach at-risk youth to ‘respect’ convicts?

“How can threatening youth with sexual and physical acts of violence, hurling profanities in their faces, ever be construed as therapeutic or something that will change behavior in the long-term?

“I just am not convinced that traumatizing kids is appropriate or effective and last night's program did nothing to change my mind.

“How and why are we allowing this to happen?

“Our justice system and scientific research have recognized differences in adults and youth and take these differences into account. The scared straight approach says these differences don't matter. Let's give them a ‘taste’ of big boy justice before it’s too late.

“When we lose our patience as adults and give into our base impulses, like scared straight, then it is too late for these kids.

“The majority of kids (more than half) who come to JUVENILE court one time never come back. The kids referred to scared straight are mostly first-time offenders, which means half would not recidivate with or without receiving the services. So the program claims a success, even if the program has no benefit.

“The shoplifters, the unruly kids, the ones who drink or smoke (not the addicted ones) are kids that we would not see again anyway. But the others, you have greatly increased the cool factor, the respect factor, even the love factor for these inmates and the life they live.

“If you go to the A&E message boards, it is really disheartening. It's all positive, ‘we need this, love it, praise, how can I get my child into this.’

“We have a long way to go to un-do the damage of this programming.”

Here are two comments from the A&E message boards:

“I used to work in a group home that housed youth with behavioural issues. One of those youth thought he was a real tough guy, and he loved to say how much he hated women. One shift there were only 2 women on staff and he decided that he was going to show us 'who was boss' as he said. He was a 16 year old in a 30 year old body. This kid was huge. He started to attack us, was doing damage to the property and putting the other residents in danger. The police were called. 2 female officers came to arrest him (I do admit that given his hatred of women I was a little happy about this). He spent the night in a detention center, and was then transfered to a young offenders center until his court date.

All it took was 2 nights behind bars to set this kid straight. He came back into our care a little puppy dog. Respectful, remorseful, and thankful to be given another chance to make things right. Because of his change of attitude we (the other staff member and I) decided not to continue with any charges. He fixed the drywall and painted the walls ~ that was enough for us.I'm sure A&E did not cross any legal lines. They may make poor decisions sometimes, but they do have lawyers working for them. Parents have to give permission for it. It's not like they get these kids from the street and say 'you are on the way to prison young man'. These kids have done something that has made their parents think this is their only option.” - TV watcher

“Seek professional mental health assistance if there is a problem, go to a trained professional, they have sliding fee scale based on ability to pay. Don’t trust the life of a child you care about to an untrained convict. Be open, honest and recognize that the issues may be more than just the child. In 76% of all cases there is something else going on. To hold a child accountable the adults in their lives must also be accountable. Who do you want to show love (real love) to your child, you or a convict?” -JOELEATHER222

***One other note on “Beyond Scared Straight.” Vignati suggested to us that scared straight programs may violate the federal requirements in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that require separating juveniles and adults within the walls of a locked facility.

If you watched the first episode, you know there was a scene where it certainly looked like they were careening toward a violation. Each girl is told that if they don’t act right during the visit, they will get locked up at the prison for 72 hours. Some actually do get thrown into solitary cells for an undetermined amount of time (maybe an hour?), but nobody is actually held overnight.

Anyway, it turns out that OJJDP once worked with North Carolina juvenile justice planner Paul LaChance on a guide for states on when a scared straight program does and does not violate sight/sound separation rules.

Click here to read that guide. Bottom line: It is a federal violation if the youth is visiting because he was publicly ordered to do so, the facility is secure, and the youth has sight or sound contact with prison inmates.

It is not clear if any of the girls in the first episode were actually ordered to participate as a consequence for their actions.

***We are now in the fourth month of Fiscal 2011, so it might seem strange that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published its 2011 Program Plan in Wednesday’s Federal Register. The federal money for 2011 has flowed only through continuing resolutions thus far, with the current one ending in March, so likely this plan is a heads up to Congress in case they, you know, actually want to pass some real appropriations bills this year.

The plan mostly lists continuation of existing projects and programs at OJJDP, but a few new proposals jumped out to JJ Today:

Community-led Projects

Funding either new sites to replicate intervention programs such as “Boston Gun Project, the Richmond Comprehensive Homicide Initiative and the Chicago CeaseFire model.”

This would fall under the “Community-Based Violence Prevention Program,” which in the program plan is followed by the “Comprehensive Community Anti-Gang Strategies and Programs.”

As has been noted before in this column, this whole carve-out has established a natural habitat for the PROMISE Act if it ever passes.

Reform

Statements you would not have read from program plans during the Roberto Flores era at OJJDP (if the agency had written such plans): “Reforming juvenile justice and improving systems across the country is a priority for OJJDP.”

But that phrase appears in the 2011 plan, right before a paragraph that says OJJDP will focus this year on “detention and corrections reform, and youth transitioning back to their communities from a detention or corrections facility.”

Monitoring

“OJJDP proposes to support a project to provide independent monitoring in juvenile justice facilities to identify and address dangerous and unsafe conditions of confinement.” Some states already have an independent monitoring body for JJ facilities; Maryland is pretty much the standard bearer for such ventures.

Girls Programs

“OJJDP intends to support evaluations that will measure the effectiveness of delinquency prevention, intervention and/or treatment programs to prevent and reduce girls’ risk behavior and offending.” There originally was hope that such evaluations would be part of the work done by the Girls Study Group, the most recent OJJDP-funded venture on the subject, but that never materialized.

After-School Programs

The proposal is to fund after-school arts programs that “respond to the needs of at-risk youth who, research has shown, are at greatest risk of being a victim of a violent act or committing a crime during the after-school hours of 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

It’s hard to figure out what that means. Would programs have to provide research that they are serving youth at risk of being victims or offenders? Or is this a general statement that “at-risk youth” are “at greatest risk?” The difference is big, because the former suggests a targeted approach to services and the latter is the kind of vagary that leads OJJDP money to fund things that really ought to be the purview of other federal agencies.  

This is actually a proposed program plan, so there is time for the public to comment on the priorities set forth here by OJJDP. Due date for such comments is Feb. 28. 

***Meanwhile, 13 funding notices for Fiscal 2011 are up on the OJJDP website; click here to view them. It looks like this list includes most of the mentoring and research solicitations.

***The Duke University School of Law is hosting its Third Annual Social Change Symposium on Feb. 18. This year’s subject: The Collateral Consequences of Juvenile Adjudication. Click here for a list of speakers.