Pilot program offers young offenders time for exercise and workshops, not detention

05/13/2014 6:05 PM

05/13/2014 6:05 PM

It’s a common story: Young offender gets put on probation, young offender fails to follow the rules of probation, young offender ends up in a detention cell.

But putting teens in cells for technical violations often does more harm, traumatizing them and sending them deeper into a spiral of failure, said Rise Haneberg, Johnson County criminal justice coordinator.

Research on youthful lawbreakers shows, “the last thing you want to do is hold a juvenile in a detention center,” she said. “Even one night can harm them.”

So the county has teamed up with community groups and churches to find what they hope will be a better way: an evening reporting program that brings youths in for five hours of physical activity, study help and life skills training every Tuesday through Friday.

The pilot project, running June through December, brings in faith-based groups, community groups and corporate sponsors to provide food and programs for juveniles who might otherwise be in detention for violating probation, Haneberg said.

It works like this: Youths who are in the program are picked up by vans after school and taken to Millcreek Center, a former school property owned by the Olathe School District. There, they get some time for physical activity — basketball, running and yoga, for instance — before settling down for help with schoolwork and other programming on such things as budgeting and health education. There are snacks and a meal.

The pilot program is being paid for from money already in the county budget this year. In addition, a request will be made for about $29,000 to fund the program in 2015.

Similar programs have already proven successful in other parts of the country, including the Chicago area, Minneapolis and Greene County, Mo., Haneberg said.

The youths who would participate would be those who have made more technical probation violations, not those who have been violent or committed a new crime while on probation, Haneberg said. Probation violators make up about 30 percent of youth in detention.

The idea has been enthusiastically received by community groups, she said. Many have volunteered to lead programs and provide materials, and the Olathe School District has also been supportive in allowing the use of its Millcreek Center.

Lee Jost, lead pastor of Christ the Servant Church in Olathe and one of the organizers of the volunteers, said community members are excited about the project. They have plans to offer poetry reading time, for example. The county mental health department also will help out with workshops, and there will be some programs about making good decisions and anger management, he said.

“It’s such an opportunity for us as a community. So often we think about kids in crisis and don’t even know how to help,” Jost said. With this program, “community members bring their own skills. They can connect with a student who needs guidance and really let them know the community cares. It’s a more lasting impact than just keeping them out of jail.”

Ultimately, the program will help connect kids and their parents with people in the community whom they can turn to for support, Jost said.

Organizers have a good pool of volunteers but are looking for a few more to provide food for family meal nights on Thursdays, he said. There is also a need for donations for incentives and gift cards for the juveniles and their parents, said Haneberg.

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