Indiana Aims High to Reduce RecidivismPosted by Lauren Jones on October 20th, 2010
The Indiana Department of Corrections was recently awarded nearly $1 million in grants to improve transitional services to youth offenders. Their goal is lofty: To decrease the recidivism rate by 50 percent.
To achieve this, the department is partnering with Marion County and its juvenile justice task force, which includes nonprofits such as Aftercare for Indiana through Mentoring (AIM) and Youth as Resources. Its new efforts include a transition program that will track youth from disposition to discharge from programs, which may include job readiness, educational and/or vocational assistance. Youth will also be paired with mentors.
“We hope to be able to demonstrate successful programs that can be duplicated in other jurisdictions,” said Kellie Whitcomb, executive director of the Juvenile Services Department.
Though promising, the plan appears limited. While the mentoring aspect is a great idea, a big piece missing from the effort is the involvement of the communities the children come from. All children need role models, but the most powerful ones are often those who a child can identify with. In this plan, the mentors will come from the Peace Corps –in the form of volunteers and college students.
In my opinion, no matter how a college student tries to convince a youth from a particular background who has been locked up or detained that they are one and the same, it is unlikely that most of the youth will perceive the mentors that way.
This is a common problem faced when working on juvenile justice reform – the disenfranchisement of local community groups who are culturally relevant to the young people coming into the juvenile justice system. These groups are not often invited to system reform tables, and even sometimes are viewed as risky partners or adversarial, because many have pushed for years against the system in order to enact reform.
But the system should work with groups that cater to the populations landing in detention. In Indianapolis, FIRME, which stands for Film, Inquiry, Research, Media and Education, is a local nonprofit rooted in Latino cultural pride, which is inclusive of children of all backgrounds. Its focus is arming children with the skills necessary to tell their stories through multimedia tools. Executive director Felipe Vargas teaches children how to shoot and edit video as well as interview sources, enabling the kids to produce their own “varrio-mentaries,” youth-produced documentaries told from their perspective without an agenda, commercial slant and without the filter of someone’s editing eye.
“We were never been brought to the table on this conversation, though we’re very open to it,” Vargas said of the DOC’s plan. He also sits on the state’s Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) confinement board.
FIRME is just one example of a culturally relevant community-based group in Marion County, where in 2008 African American youth were securely detained at three times the rate of White youth, according to state and county data reported to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
In order for recidivism to be reduced by 50 percent, I believe the system should look to more programs such as these for mentors and as alternatives to detention. Children involved in the system need programs in their own neighborhoods, run by people who not only understand the challenges they face, but who have also lived them. They are more likely to react positively to someone “from the hood,” than they are to take advice from a cop, probation officer or any other representative of the government.
Programs such as these would be the most effective way to reduce recidivism. Sociologist Edwin Schur talks about this issue in his book, Radical Non-Intervention: Rethinking the Delinquency Problem. Schur writes “As juvenile justice moves in new directions, a variety of new approaches will continue to be useful,” specifically, “prevention programs with a collective or community focus…that use indigenous personnel.”
There are very few studies that measure the effectiveness of cultural-based programs compared to culturally non-specific programs, but according to “What Works, Wisconsin,” a study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s school of human ecology, culturally tailored programs may be more effective than general programs.
Marion County’s DOC should look to successful, evidence-based nonprofits in the neighborhoods that contribute the most youth to detention when seeking programs and mentors for system-involved youth. A truly collaborative approach that involves community-based and culturally relevant groups based would be the most effective use of grant funding, time and energy on the part of the system.
This approach would expand their network of juvenile justice advocates and professionals, and their options for alternatives to detention, to keep first-time offenders from becoming further system involved.
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