Between the moment juvenile offenders first feel handcuffs on their wrists to the second they hear a jail door slam behind them, they have many opportunities to turn away from crime. Even while they’re behind bars, programs have been developed to steer them toward positive, crime-free lives.
Jeremy Kaiser, director of the Scott County Juvenile Detention Center, says the approach of restorative mediation often is successful.
“We’re trying to get to the bottom, the heart of why there is conflict,” Kaiser said. “So we meet with each of the students one at a time and we talk through the issues. How did this start, where did this come from, and then we want them to accept their responsibility.”
One victim took an extremely personal approach to that mediation.
“The victim wanted them to come to their house to cut their grass and she wanted to develop a relationship with the kids and it actually worked out really well,” Kaiser said. “The kid ended up buying his own lawnmower and started mowing lawns around his neighborhood.”
Similarly, the Davenport Community Schools approach deals with teenagers in crisis as individuals, digging into what’s causing the problem behavior, again with the hope of turning them away from violence and crime by spending time together in skills groups.
“We talk about youth development and these two young men had a knack to always go to fight or get angry, but after spending about six and a half weeks with them and introducing them to other people in the community so they personally got to meet police officers, counselors, the superintendent,” said Jabari Woods, associate director for human resources and equity at Davenport Community Schools.
“We put them in a position where we wanted to give them an alternative to what they were seeing,” Woods said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the challenge even more difficult.
“The COVID pandemic has forced a lot of people, particularly our students, into isolation,” he said. “No social interaction, constantly on a virtual, learning is optional because it’s all virtual. I think that has lent itself to the loneliness. There’s definitely a sense of not feeling belonging.”
That isolation, the recent increase in youth-related crime, culminating with a student’s violent death, is a wakeup call to the community.
“Jamon Winfrey’s life and what he stood for wasn’t just represented by the way that he died, but what we need to do as a community to respond to it,” Woods said.
He says adults in a young person’s life mean more than they might imagine.
“When I see these young people hurting each other, the Black-on-Black crimes, genocide, all the things that are happening in our community I see there is a lack of love or the understanding of what love really means and when you see young people gather arms and do things to hurt one another, there’s something missing there, and I think we’re responsible as adults to teach them,” Woods said.
It’s a step-by-step process, Woods says. And it begins long before a child enters a classroom … or a detention center.