Better management of juvenile populations

Youthful offenders bring to the correctional environment shocking histories

By Cherrie Greco

States remain challenged when managing juvenile and youthful populations. One unfortunate, publicized facility event is often symptomatic of a pattern for previous incidents left unsatisfactorily resolved.

However, the agency acknowledging human error, negligence, or failure to take action early on, is the agency willing to accept criticism with the commitment to push through an investigative process in order to identify deficiencies and take needed corrective action.

On a good day, adolescents can be frustrating, but correctional professionals understand managing adolescent offenders is stressful and serious, given the agency's enormous legal and moral responsibility to ensure the ongoing education, health, safety, and security of this population. And because it can be difficult to differentiate between normal teen-age quirkiness and other behaviors linked to full-blown anti-social and dangerous conduct, the public's safety is at risk.

Youthful offenders bring to the correctional environment shocking histories. Those who were bullied may be aggressive toward others. Sexually abused offenders carry a burden of unresolved trauma and may have learned to navigate through life in sexual ways, resulting in their being re-victimized or becoming dangerous predators.

There may be undiagnosed mental illness. Some have parents or siblings also incarcerated. Some may be parents themselves. Adequate food and medical care has typically been erratic, and correctional administrators learn quickly their populations are easier to manage when fed well and often.

Having raced through normal adolescent development, this population has become desensitized to violence, has little regard for authority, poor school experiences, and demonstrates inferior coping skills for managing daily life. They are defiant, and this group has, over time, developed inappropriate social habits with the inability to trust being reinforced too many times. The good news is, in the right environment, these offenders stand a chance to be permanently re-directed.

An established facility program with a specific scope and sequence is necessary, linked to a well-known mission staff and offenders understand. A thorough examination of the offender's background through pre-sentence investigation reports and other means is critical when individualizing a case management plan and helping prepare for re-entry from day one of incarceration. Sound policies, grounded in law and best practices, will direct staff who should receive intense, specialized training where the study of adolescent development is reinforced, as well as a reminder that being fair, firm, and consistent is never more important than with this population.

Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulations are especially critical for this group and require training for staff and offenders who must know available reporting options and the meaning of zero tolerance. Organized physical activity is essential. Probably the most vital key to success for this group is gaining the academic strength not only to attain a high school diploma, but also the understanding that being a free and independent adult is possible through education.

Adolescent offenders are racing a marathon designed for endurance, not speed. Small steps in a safe and solid agency program translate to large victories, including freedom's promise and the hope for new beginnings.

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