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Probation With A Therapeutic Approach Keeps Kids Out Of Juvenile Hall


Probation is supposed to act as an alternative to incarceration, but in many places, it doesn't quite work out that way. And that's especially evident in juvenile detention centers. Many juvenile halls are filled with young people who are there thanks to minor violations they made on probation like disobeying their parents or missing school. But in Michigan's Wayne County, the juvenile probation system has been completely reimagined, and it's resulted in much lower recidivism rates. Youth Radio's Soraya Shockley reports on what's been working.

SORAYA SHOCKLEY, BYLINE: Here's how meetings with Wayne County juvenile justice specialist Susan Wiley tend to start.


SUSAN WILEY: Drugs screens - you've been drug screening as you're required to?

DEBBIE: Yes. I dropped today.

WILEY: All right, and those will be negative?

DEBBIE: Very, very negative.

WILEY: OK, good.

SHOCKLEY: That's Debbie. We're not using the teen's last name for her privacy since her juvenile records are protected by law. She's checking in with Wiley, who serves as a kind of PO or probation officer. Seems like a normal probation session but listen a bit longer.

WILEY: How is everything going with you and your mother?

DEBBIE: Everything's going good. I mean, we have our up and downs, but we get over them.

SHOCKLEY: Family issues, school challenges and even what happens in therapy sessions - these all come up in the meetings. That's part of what makes Wayne County's reforms unusual. Back in 2000, Wayne County made some major changes. First, they took control of the probation system from the state. They also made the probation program more therapeutic, and it worked. Before reforms in Wayne County, about 6 in 10 kids got into more legal trouble after becoming involved in the system. Now the recidivism rate is low - 16 percent. Also, fewer young people are being incarcerated, and their time in the system is much shorter.

Here's a key difference. Instead of using a law-enforcement approach, Wayne County contracts with local nonprofits. That's how Susan Wiley, a case manager at Southwest Counseling Solutions in Detroit, took on functions of a probation officer.

WILEY: I think my position versus a traditional probation officer - in working with teens, you have to really base their treatment around them as individuals, not just as a basic teenager.

SHOCKLEY: Debbie was 16 when she was assigned to probation after running away from home. She didn't know what to expect from her first meeting with Wiley.

DEBBIE: When I was told I was going to be put on probation, it was just, like, what is probation, you know? Then I was just like, OK, well, she's a lady; she looks understandable. We got the drift of each other.

SHOCKLEY: Debbie has been on probation a long time - two years. She's never been locked up during that time, and she says she's benefited from the services that are part of probation.

DEBBIE: It was for the better pretty much, I mean, 'cause I'm doing things big things now. I'm soon to graduate. I'm just doing better in life, period.

SHOCKLEY: And that's the goal, says Brian Manning. He's the deputy director of Wayne County's Department of Health, Veterans and Community Wellness.

BRIAN MANNING: The focus really is on the youth and the youth's family and ensuring that the youth has access to the appropriate services they need.

SHOCKLEY: Manning says the old probation system in Wayne County wasn't set up for young people to be successful. But he admits it was unclear when they started out 15 years ago if the new approach in Wayne County was going to work. The reforms took a long time to show results.

MANNING: I think any major county around the country was seeking to develop a, you know, sophisticated system of care with good breadth. I think they can do this. What I'd say is everybody kind of needs to bring the appropriate amount of patience to this kind of an endeavor.

SHOCKLEY: Debbie also tells herself to be patient while on probation.

DEBBIE: I still have times where it's just, like, OK, Debbie, you got to do what you got to do. I mean, I've been through a lot. Don't get me wrong. I'm only 17, but I've seen a lot. I've done a lot. But there's, like, a lot more to go in life than to be behind bars. I'd rather be free with my family - you know? - see my family grow up, grow old - yeah.

SHOCKLEY: Like Wayne County's reforms, Debbie's efforts are starting to pay off, and she's looking forward to a life after graduation and beyond probation. For NPR News, I'm Soraya Shockley.

BLOCK: And that story was produced by Youth Radio. It's part of their series Unlocked. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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