James McNeill will soon start applying to colleges.
The 16-year-old student at the Academy of Richmond County hopes to attend The Citadel or Tuskegee University and become a Marine Corps officer.
But just two years before, his future didn't look so bright.
James was arrested after a violent fight with his ex-girlfriend at Spirit Creek Middle School. He was sentenced to eight months' probation and ordered to attend a local mentoring program, Men Making a Difference.
At a south Augusta Popeye's restaurant recently, James shares a booth with Leonard Black, another mentoring program participant. Wearing a black ARC Color Guard T-shirt and a thin, teenage mustache, James looks back on his mistakes with the perspective of someone who is now seeing life's possibilities..
"I think it didn't have to happen," he said. "It was unnecessary, but at the same time it makes me better."
MANY YOUNG MEN in James' position -- criminal history, no father at home, lower-socioeconomic status -- will continue a downward spiral that eventually ends in incarceration or early death.
To some degree, state and national statistics bear out a connection between poverty and crime.
Female-headed households with no husband present have the highest poverty level of any group, and last year they contributed to 63 percent of the juveniles committed to a Youth Development Campus in Georgia, according to U.S. Census data and the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
As adults, the majority of men annually admitted to state correctional facilities in Georgia come from female-led households, according to inmate statistical profiles provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections. The percentage of people in state prisons claiming to have been raised by just their mothers has risen from 40 percent to 44 percent since 2000.
"No question, children who live in an intact family (are) generally far better off in every indicator of social well-being," Dean Rojek, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia's Department of Sociology, said in an e-mail.
Dr. Rojek, who is the author and co-author of several books on juvenile delinquency, said the rate of unwed mothers has increased since 2002 and is highest for the 20- to 24-year-old group. Single mothers have a series of disadvantages that can encourage delinquency among their children, including the difficulty in balancing care for their child and finding work that pays well enough so they can afford child care when they aren't around.
"(The) No. 1 problem is poverty -- single mothers have a difficult time holding a job and finding child care," he said in an e-mail. "This leads to poor educational experiences, lack of supervision, delinquency and eventually early imprisonment."
WITH YOUNG PEOPLE, a big part of getting into or keeping out of trouble is the support of their families, according to Willie Battle, the founder of Men Making a Difference.
Mr. Battle, who retired from Fort Gordon in 1999, decided he could change some teenagers' lives by providing a male role model, which he said is lacking for the majority of the teens now held at the Augusta YDC and a big reason why they are there.
"A woman, she can be a mother, but she can't be a father to a young man," he said. "These kids, a lot of them, they are out there defending themselves. They are crying out for help, and they need to know that someone cares for them."
Each Wednesday and Friday, Mr. Battle picks a seat in the Richmond County Juvenile Court and watches as young people appear before the judge. Mr. Battle looks for something in the boys, something he hopes his group can fix.
On a recent weekday, the majority of them were 13- or 14-year-old boys in trouble for crimes such as burglary and car theft.
Mr. Battle points out that the boys' mothers are supportive, but many are just overwhelmed.
"About 95 percent of the youths we are working with have single parents, and the mothers are very supportive," he said. "When I look at the temptations that the youth have today compared to when I was coming up, I'm grateful I'm not coming up today."
The things that Mr. Battle said have helped to get teens such as James back on track are not provided by a courts system.
"The juvenile justice system is not rehabilitating these kids," Mr. Battle said. "When these kids go into confinement, there's no real rehab. It's a holding pattern."
Augusta State University sociology professor Bill Reese has studied juvenile delinquency for years. He says family background is essential in determining what happens to children.
"It's just about one of the most critical variables," Dr. Reese said. "If you know nothing else, if you know the status of the family of origin, that's probably going to be your best predictor of what happens to that kid."
But he says the link between poverty and criminal activity is not as clear as it's touted and might be partly due to prejudices in an imperfect justice system.
IMAGINE A DEPUTY who finds a group of teenagers drinking and smoking marijuana in a parking lot, Dr. Reese said. After stopping and talking to the kids, the deputy decides to let them off with a warning and calls their parents to pick them up. The first kid's parents arrive and take him home. The second kid, who is poor and more likely to come from a single-parent background, says he doesn't know his dad and doesn't know where his mom is.
That child will likely end up in the youth detention center, which can lead down a path that results in further institutionalization.
"The deck is stacked in terms of who's going to get convicted," he said. "And I'm not so sure that's independent of whether they are guilty or not. In my opinion the (Bernie) Madoffs of this world are much more criminal than the guy who sticks up the local Circle K."
Leonard, a student at the Richmond County Alternative School, hopes to avoid becoming a statistic. He got caught driving the getaway car when three of his friends decided to break into a home and steal a TV and stereo in September. He is new to Mr. Battle's program, but already is beginning to think about the reasons for his involvement in crime. Both he and James place some of the blame on their missing fathers.
Leonard's father died about two years ago, and James said his parents were never married.
"I just wasn't being scolded at home," Leonard said. "I kind of got some leeway."
Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
3,209: number of youths admitted to a Youth Development Campus in Georgia last year
2,031: number that lived with their mother alone, 63 percent
544: number that lived with neither mother nor father, 17 percent
388: number that lived with both parents,12 percent
246: number who lived with father only, 8 percent
Source: Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice