Dressed in orange-and-white inmate jumpsuits, five teens spent a recent Saturday picking up garbage littered around May Park. At lunchtime they ate bologna sandwiches from the jail cafeteria and got a look at the cramped cells where they could one day be sleeping.
At the end of the day, the boys were free to go home. But the experience was meant to give them a glimpse at what life could be like if they didn’t change their ways.
To help curb youth violence and crime, Sheriff Richard Roundtree has launched the Juvenile Offender Impact program that exposes first-time youth offenders to prison and the consequences of criminal behavior. The teens will be referred by Juvenile Court judges, and the program could serve as a sentencing alternative with parent or guardian permission.
“We’re not trying to scare them, we’re trying to educate them on a lifestyle change,” Roundtree said.
Teens will complete a community service project, get a tour of the jail, eat a jail meal, meet with the sheriff, hear a personal story from an inmate and have discussions with deputies about life decisions and choices.
Roundtree said the sheriff’s department can absorb the minimal costs of transportation and meals, but he is hoping to sustain partnerships with other organizations to help fund the pay for two deputies each Saturday.
On the first session, July 20, five boys ages 13 to 17 who had been charged with theft, burglary and shoplifting charges, had a chance to give feedback on their experience.
According to a statement, one boy’s only criticism is that it should be offered to more kids.
Roundtree said the JOI initiative is not a Scared Straight program in that it must not be used as a sentencing tool without parent permission and the experience is not meant to be sensational.
Before each session, the officers will have reviewed the teens’ files to understand their criminal history, family life, status in school and other factors. They will also follow up with the teens so the mentoring goes beyond one weekend, Roundtree said.
It is still considered a pilot program, and Roundtree said he is not certain how successful it will be, but intervening in an at-risk child’s life is key.
The court has not yet referred any more teens to the program, but the hope is for JOI to take place weekly.
“The officers, when they work with them, they’re not mean or derogetory,” he said. “They want to help them, and that’s the best part.”