I recently met Lakeisha McFall. She is a mom of two college aged children. Her daughter is a senior at North Carolina A&T University and her son has received his bachelor’s degree from Capitol Technology University and is now working on his master’s degree. She is new to the Eastern shore. She currently works as a homicide victim witness advocate with the Baltimore States Attorney office and will be a UDC Law student this upcoming semester. She has over 15 years of criminal justice experience.
As we talked, the main topic was the difficulty that youth and young adults who have been involved in criminal and delinquent behavior have in changing their lives in more positive directions. While I write about the issue from my past experience, Lakeisha helped confirm what follows based on her current experience and her life growing up in Baltimore.
The biggest challenge that I saw from the bench that many youth face in changing their lives is the draw of the family or community to rejoin them in past behaviors. Where a child had addressed the substance abuse issues that she faced or came to understand that education really was a way to a better life that was not going to get better without change, there might be someone in the family or neighborhood that did not see his or her change as success. This became another challenge for the young person.
It was not the punishment that I imposed that made the difference. It was the work of the probation officer, teacher, mentor, other family member, or community advocate who connected with the child that made the difference in his or her starting and staying on a new path. But those people were not there all day every day to remind the young person to stay the course. The people who were there were family members some of whom did not want him to leave them or the way of life that they were living. They were the friends that she had grown up with that had helped her down a wrong road.
The stories of the young people that were able to turn their lives around and “make” it are wonderful. We saw them as part of a “Beat the Odds” program that our local bar association started years ago to provide college scholarships or post high school training grants for those youth who had been court involved or diverted from court. Those scholarships and grants helped them to turn their lives around and provided the opportunity to break that chain that had held them back during their young lives.
An important part of breaking the chain or the cycle of their lives was removing them from the negative influences and influencers in their lives. For those going on to college away from home for the first time, the change could be traumatic. Meeting new people; making new friends; being homesick; being in a new and uncomfortable place can all disrupt a young person’s life. Having positive support in that new place is important and often times not easily found. It can be a dorm counselor or teacher. If he is in an apprentice program, it can be the new employer that is teaching him new skills. Many young people including young adults need to have that opportunity to separate from a life that was pulling them back in order to break what may have been a family cycle that had gone on for generations.
On the Eastern Shore, aside from colleges that are away from home, I am unsure what other facilities are available to help youth or young adults that need that opportunity to get away from the home or neighborhood environment that resists breaking the cycle. I learned at a recent training that there are no government provided shelter homes on the Eastern Shore that could provide that service.
What does it cost to detain a youth in a state detention center or a young adult in a jail? I saw data for Maryland that the average cost for a person in jail is $38,000 a year. My research years ago found that in Virginia the average cost to send a child to the state for a year of confinement, which was the average length of stay (ALOS) for him or her, was $100,000. I have seen data on different websites that the cost is even greater now even with usage going down. What is the success rate of those youth and young adults after that type of incarceration? Recidivism rates are not good, which means that a high percentage of those people who are incarcerated will be back involved with the law sometime in the future.
Might it be less expensive and more productive to fund some shelter care or transition facilities in some different counties that would also provide services including GED, high school graduation, college opportunities, apprenticeship programs, and mentorships that would allow the young person to have a real chance at breaking the cycle? At what cost? Cost has to be considered both in what the state might pay to run such programs but also in the potential of turning that person into a taxpayer and productive citizen who does not become a further burden on the communities that may be victims of his or her behavior or have to pay for future incarcerations or other public benefits.
Have programs like this been tried before? Has Maryland or other states looked at the data for those youth or young adults that were provided an alternative to incarceration? Has Maryland looked at the cost savings from closing some of its facilities and repurposing others that could allow the monies saved to be put back into the communities for effective prevention and early intervention programming?
I see that Maryland is closing some facilities over the next several years and that its detention rate for youth has been falling over the years, but where will the money go that is saved from those closings? Are groups of counties looking at creating shelter care of other programs that are more focused on prevention and early intervention to see what impact they might have? Are our local school systems and funding resources like county councils looking at state and federal mandates and offering ideas for alternatives that might work better for today’s youth? In a 2020 study, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that pretrial detention of youth increased the odds of felony recidivism by 33%. See https://www.aecf.org/blog/study-pretrial-juvenile-detention-increases-odds-of-felony-recidivism-by-33.
Could counties use some of the properties that they own from tax sales and rehabilitate them for separate use by older youth or young adults and supervised by state staff with services provided by state and local agencies and nonprofits?
I don’t know the answers to the questions above but would welcome a conversation with anyone who might or who might be interested in discussing this further.
Thanks for reading. Please be in touch.
Judge Rideout is the former Chief Judge of the Alexandria, VA Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (1989-2004). From 2004 until the present he has consulted in different states to support their efforts to improve their child welfare systems. From 2016 to early 2021, he was the Ward 1 Commissioner on the Cambridge City Council. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for improving the lives of children in his and other communities. He can be reached at [email protected]