It was November of his sophomore year of high school, the first time Mason got arrested. Bits of marijuana had been found in his backpack during a random school search. He went to court and was put into a diversion program, but if authorities were thinking that would scare him straight, they’d have to think again.
“At the end of that probation, I still didn’t have any plans to stop smoking. When I got off, I wanted to smoke again,” said Mason, who didn’t want his name used in this story.
He’d started as a freshman, he said. “A lot of my friends smoked weed and I wanted to try it,” he said. “So I tried it and I liked it.”
After diversion, he went back to smoking eventually up to four or five times a day. Another drug search caught up with him, though, and the ensuing probation did not go well. He failed enough random urine tests to get himself put on house arrest.
“This time I messed up a lot,” he said.
He failed another test while on house arrest. But here is where things went right for Mason. Instead of going straight to a detention center, the court sent him to the Evening Reporting Center. It’s a new program that requires daily after-school attendance at the Millcreek Center in Olathe.
The Evening Reporting Center is a short program — only three to six weeks. The aim is to find lower-risk juvenile offenders and give them something to do after school that encourages them to make better choices.
Mason and his mother say the center has helped where diversion and house arrest did not. Mason has managed to stay away from marijuana for more than four months, has graduated and is now working while he decides what to do next. He is considering community college, and possibly a job working with animals some day.
“This program gave me a lot of coping skills along with filling up my time,” he said. “It gave me a different outlook on life. It definitely benefitted me a lot.”
The center started as a pilot project in 2015 in part of the county’s continuing efforts to help nonviolent youths who have committed probation violations and similar infractions out of detention. It is part of a general trend away from the lock-them-up mindset of the 1980s that filled jails and detention centers.
The county also recently started a special court for veterans, with similar aims.
The programs usually provide mentors and a safe place to talk openly about any problems they may be having.
That’s especially important for juveniles. When the center was first conceived, county experts who work with young offenders said detention should be avoided if possible, because it is damaging to their chances of straightening up.
Laura Brewer and Hunter LaFevers, who run the reporting center, say they try to make the space at the Millcreek Center welcoming enough that kids can talk about their lives. Although it’s a short time, they hope to build trusting relationships that will show the kids a better model for making decisions. Probation officers might pop in, but they don’t have their notebooks out, for example.
“Were here to help, not to go back and tattle, for lack of a better word,” said LaFevers.
That’s not to say that every kid in the county juvenile system can get in. To be in the program, youths have to be referred by a probation officer, and it takes more than a nice smile to get that referral.
Youths are evaluated by the officer using a complex risk-assessment tool in which scores are given for such things as criminal history, family relationships, substance abuse history and personality. The assessment involves a 1-2 hour interview with family members as well as court and school records.
The typical youth who goes to the reporting center is about 16 years old and male, more often than not. Younger kids are not barred from the program, but experience has shown that it doesn’t work as well for those younger than 14, because they often act out to impress the older attendees, Brewer said. Usually, they’re not mature enough to get some of the concepts on decision-making that the center teaches, she added.
Youths are usually there because of technical violations of their probation, such things as substance abuse, skipping school or being out of control at home.
Some, like Mason, are one infraction away from the detention center when they get the referral.
Once there, the center gives them plenty to do. Vans pick them up from their schools and drop them off in Olathe. Because of the differing drive times, things don’t usually get started until after 4:30 p.m. The evening typically ends at 8 or 8:30.
There’s usually some type of physical activity such as a game or yoga before any program leaders start. The programs are varied, but often focus heavily on coping skills and strategies for making better decisions.
Mason remembered the journaling project as being particularly helpful. In it, students were asked to write five things they wanted to happen in their lives in the next few years. That was an activity that helped him think beyond the present, he said.
That’s the type of positive change the center’s backers hope for.
Lee Jost, pastor of Christ the Servant Church in Olathe, has been organizing community support for the center since its inception. Several programs have been particularly effective, he said.
For instance, the center brings in speakers from Reaching Out from Within, in which minimum-security prisoners from the Lansing Correctional Facility sit down with the youths and talk about how they have coped with their own problems.
“The kids really love it when they come and really learn a lot,” Jost said. It’s not a “scared straight” mindset though. “They talk about the ways they are learning to cope with those challenges so they can make different and more stable life choices upon their release,” he said.
The center also uses books and Friday night in-house movies to make the same points. In Read to Succeed, volunteers read short stories with the youths and discuss the choices the protagonists make. The movie nights follow a similar format.
The youths do art projects when art volunteers are available and the regular robotics activity night put on by Olathe Northwest High School has also been a hit, as has the Thursday family dinner night, where parents come in to eat meals provided by the center with their kids. The two age groups then split up, with parents talking to counselors and kids doing an activity.
Programs work best when they get a juvenile offender to change his or her thinking, say the ERC’s organizers. Often, kids may not think they are really doing anything wrong and that their criminal actions don’t hurt anyone, said Jake Baska, a probation officer who has been involved with the ERC. “They don’t really think about the negatives. It might cross their minds for a second, but they don’t give much thought to it,” he said. “The programs are getting them to think about the consequences of their actions.”
District Court Judge Thomas Foster agreed. “I think it’s very valuable. It’s a positive social situation where they’re hopefully learning some ways to make better decisions.”
Often kids in detention learn more bad things than good, he said. House arrest isn’t much better, with a lot of time and not much to do.
“This program keeps them busy from school to bedtime,” Foster said.
That was certainly the case for Mason. He was on house arrest for a time, until he failed a urine test. After that, he was offered the choice of ERC or detention.
“It wasn’t forced, but I probably would have gone to jail if I didn’t go (to ERC),” he said.
The heavy scheduling, “kind of helped me break some habits. It got me out of some routines,” he said. Instead of bored hours thinking about smoking, he had something to do. The reporting center and, to a certain extent, house arrest, kept him from smoking as much, he said.
“Then once I stopped it got a lot easier to not continue to do it,” Mason said.
The center is still fairly new, so there isn’t a lot of data yet on its long-term effectiveness. It’s still too early to tell the recidivism rate, which shows whether participants were re-arrested in the two years following the program, Brewer said.
But the program’s advocates are encouraged by its apparent success as a pilot project last year. Data from January through October of 2015 showed about three-quarters of the 48 participants successfully completed the program and avoided subsequent placement in detention. Most of the kids in the program during that time were there for substance abuse or missed urine test.
In any case, the program and other changes in the justice system have had an effect on the detention center population. Brewer said that in the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for the Juvenile Intake Center to be so full that kids would be farmed out to other facilities. The center was built for 60, but had only nine on a day this spring.
“The pendulum has swung in criminal justice,” she said. In the past, youths were over incarcerated for small infractions. But more counties are now using evidence-based practices to determine what works, she said. “We’re looking at the practices we’ve had forever and saying have we helped these kids? Could we have helped them by leaving them in the community?”
For Mason and his family, the Evening Reporting Center was a chance to get some support in a situation that was wearing on the family’s relationship, his mother said. Although both parents could usually tell when Mason came home high, their efforts to deal with it were not effective, she said.
The idea of incarceration was welcome incentive in getting Mason to agree to cooperate, she added. “I don’t think he would have done it voluntarily.”
Mason’s mother said it meant a lot that people at the ERC didn’t bark orders and back him into a corner about his drug use. He knew his other choice would be detention, but he was allowed to make that choice for himself, she said.
“He’s chosen to stop and stay clean on his own. It’s his process rather than being a threat from his parents,” she said.