Clay-Lowndes program a model for state
By Cynthia M. Jeffries
WEST POINT – Clay and Lowndes counties have established a method of dealing with juveniles that many in the state consider ideal.
In fact, the Adolescent Offenders Program is considered the model for the state as it attempts to revamp the way it deals with juvenile offenders.
With AOP, instead of heading to a state training school, the juvenile offender can go through an intensely structured yearlong program in his or her hometown that consists of individual, group and family counseling, coupled with work and motivational techniques.
“In my experience, if you are not working with the family, you are having little impact,” said AOP counselor Chris Whitver, one of the four in the West Point office.
Organizers noticed that in the first three years of the program, which was begun in 1990, the number of juveniles who were sent back to a training school after completing the program went from 45 to 8 percent.
The counseling part of the program – done four day a week- is aimed not only at getting a child to stop his or her negative behavior but also at giving the child alternative ways of handling confrontations and his or her anger.
The idea is to keep the child from having to return to a training school and eventually graduating to the state prison system. It also hopes to teach the offender how to become a productive part of society, said Karen Phillips, a day treatment supervisor for the Regional 7 Mental Health, Community Counseling Services, the organization that oversees AOP.
The program is not just an alternative for training school. Juveniles also are required to participate in the program when they are released from a training school. That way, the offender is not just sent back to his or her neighborhood to fend for himself against the forces that led him to the training school in the first place, said Clay County Youth Court Judge Tom Storey.
The program is set up on a consequences-and-rewards basis. If a participant misses one of the scheduled meetings, or a day of work, he could find himself in a detention center for a weekend or at a training school.
But if the juvenile does what is expected, he can graduate from the program and receive a certificate of completion. The program normally last for 12 months, but can continue until the participant is 20 years old.
While participating, the youthful offender can also earn merits for a night out or a meal out or other activities.
AOP counselor Andrew Day said for the program to be effective it has to have an even dose of rewards along with the consequences.
The program was born out of Regional 7 Mental Health, Community Counseling Services desire to improve the youth incarceration rate in the area, Phillips said. Jackie Edwards, director of Community Counseling Services and a Lowndes County psychologist, first started a mentor program using Mississippi State football players. Later, organizers started counseling the youthful offenders. Because the service was covered my Medicaid, the cost was one concern parents didn’t have to worry about.
“There are a lot of people who have jobs but can’t afford to send their child through this type of program,” said Storey, who sought to get the program in his area within six months of its starting in Columbus.
Funding for the state
During the 1994-95 legislative session, state lawmakers appropriated $800,000 to continue the program in Clay and Lowndes counties as well as start programs in Clarksdale, Hattiesburg, Natchez and Vicksburg.
In 1995, 371 children went through the program: 38 from Clay County, 66 from Lowndes County and the rest from the four cities added to the program last year.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers upped funding to $1.5 million and added the Gulf Coast area, Jackson and the Tupelo area.
The program has been found to be more cost-effective than sending a child to training school. It costs less than $5,000 per child to keep an offender in this program for one year, $20,000 less than it would cost to have an offender live at one of the training schools for three to four months.
Tupelo and the other two new areas finished up counselor training for the program a couple of months ago and are expected to start similar work with juveniles in this area later this year.