In the last ten years, the Pima County Juvenile Court system has developed programs that give kids an alternative to detention because experts say, being locked in a detention center can negatively affect youth.
On average, before 2004, the detention center was at capacity with about 300 kids detained, said Kim Smith, a spokeswoman with Pima County Juvenile Court. Today there are about 30 kids on average in the detention center.
“We know that kids are traumatized in detention,” said Roxana Matiella, court's initiative coordinator at Pima County Juvenile Court. “We’ve made some changes in our risk assessment instrument to make sure they meet detention criteria, only those who are a danger to the community or to themselves, otherwise we have to find alternatives for them.”
The philosophy shift was a felt nationwide. Juvenile courts across the United States began using alternative programs, diversion programs, and job training programs as ways to steer kids in the right direction, Matiella said.
The court’s most successful program, she said, is the diversion program. Its goal is to keep kids out of the courtroom, and instead work with probation officers, after school programs and domestic violence experts.
For kids who have to enter the court system, the idea is not to scare them straight, Smith said. Some Pima County judges have added coloring books and toys to their courtrooms. Others have murals inside the courtroom that promote positive behavior.
The juvenile court has an employment readiness program and an internship program aimed to help prepare teens for the real world.
“Through these programs...teens know what it’s like to have responsibility, it may be the first time adults have trusted them,” said Jack Forrester, the probation officer who oversees the programs. “They learn about having money for the first time and because some of them owe restitution they are able to pay back the court.”
The internship program is a part-time job at the court, where teens help clean the warehouse and do landscaping for minimum wage, he explained. The employment readiness program teaches teens how to apply for jobs and how to fill out applications.
Forrester also role-plays with the teens in order to prepare them for future job interviews.