From Confinement to Community: Easing the Tension for Incarcerated Youth

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From Confinement to Community: Easing the Tension for Incarcerated Youth

A Judicial Hearing Officer Shares His Experiences with the Harlem Juvenile Reentry Network
by Chris Watler 

As the judicial hearing officer for the Harlem Community Justice Center’s Juvenile Reentry Network, I see first hand the difficulties faced by young people returning from placement to their community. I also see the challenges faced by our juvenile justice system, which is struggling to do right by these kids and the communities they live in.

Open since August of 2003, the Juvenile Reentry Network serves juveniles recently released from state placement. Participants and their families are linked to an expansive network of services and monitored by an aftercare counselor and partner agencies under my supervision. The Juvenile Reentry Network is not Family Court, nor is it technically part of the judicial system. Rather, it acts as an administrative court within the New York State Office of Children and Family Services to enhance the supervision of youth in aftercare. Some of its innovative elements include a high level of family engagement, a strength-based approach to case management, youth development programming through three Boys & Girls Clubs in Harlem, access to mental health and drug treatment services, and intensive court monitoring.

I work with juveniles and their families every other week in the court. The highlights for me include working with a committed group of partners, and with kids and their families. The lives of these young people tell a story of hope and struggle in the face of family dysfunction, poverty, negative peer pressure and institutional neglect.

How does a young person returning from placement find the motivation and discipline to live a constructive life free from further offending? The Juvenile Reentry Network attempts to answer this question, but it is not easy. Gang involvement, learning disabilities, conflict at home, lack of resources (money and people), and low expectations are all part of the context within which these kids operate.

While in placement most of these kids attended school, obeyed rules, were drug free, and engaged in positive activities. Returning home afterward presents a set of incredible challenges that strike at the core of their identity in their family and in their neighborhood. Asking them to trust that a court will work with them to create change in their lives, and convincing them that change will involve creating a new identity, choosing new friends, and developing better habits and a rigid routine is daunting. Yet the alternate option of doing nothing to address their needs is a sure formula (and an expensive one) for failure.

I want to briefly describe two cases that highlight the challenges. The first case was a young woman who had been caught shoplifting at Macy's twice and brought to the Midtown Community Court. Her mother had been complaining that the child was leaving the house after curfew late at night and sitting in cars in front of the building. From her counselor at the Boys and Girls Club we learned that she was being called constantly by a male "acquaintance" who indicated that he wanted her to leave the Club to go "earn some money." Through these various conversations, the picture that emerged was of a female participant being lured into prostitution.

On the first occasion when she was caught shoplifting she was sanctioned to community service. She was failing to complete the community service when she was picked up the second time. Her aftercare counselor and I confronted her about our suspicions during a sidebar conversation. We informed her that we were going to send her to a residential program that helped young women understand the risks and realities of prostitution and helped teenage prostitutes get out of the business. We also talked to her mother at the hearing about our deep concern for her. It was during this process that the participant re-offended (the second shoplifting offense) and had to be sent back into state placement.

Normally, this case might have looked like a typical parent-child conflict with curfew violations and minor re-offending. The suspected prostitution, a more troubling issue, would most likely have gone unnoticed, but we were able to connect the dots by using information from the partners, and from the information gleaned from conversations in court with the participant and her mom. This young person is now back before me again, having been released from placement, and is applying to college and has an interview for a job. My last meeting with her in court included a mock interview from the bench. I had her practice responding to interview questions and gave her feedback. In the long run, we are hoping to get her on a different track that will increase her sense of self worth and empower her to see the possibilities for her life away from crime.

Another case involved a 16-year-old girl who had previously failed to complete aftercare four times. She was referred to Juvenile Reentry Network last fall and was returned to placement within four weeks! On her second go round with Juvenile Reentry Network (and her fifth time in aftercare) she was placed on electronic monitoring for the first four weeks of her release and given a tighter curfew. From January through May her school attendance improved, she was more engaged in Boys and Girls Club programming, and she participated more in the hearing process. Her mother indicated that she made it this far because of the Juvenile Reentry Network. Through the intense attention and structure she was given through the Network, she was able to complete the program and end the cycle of recidivism. She continues to attend her Boys and Girls Club program.

It is still much too early to say if the Juvenile Reentry Network will reduce recidivism among program participants. However, what we are seeing in the program is highly encouraging—over 90 percent of hearings involve a parent or guardian, all Juvenile Reentry Network kids are engaged in youth development programming, and we are better able to respond quickly and accurately to problems as they arise. And, with respect to recidivism, what we can say at this early stage is that, as of September 30th, 2004, only 22% (eight of the 36 program participants) have been removed from the program and returned to placement.

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