Every time Judge Steven Ellis sees a juvenile offender, he hopes it's the last he sees of them.
The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court judge said recidivism among juvenile offenders as adults is common, based on the cases he and his fellow judges see. He hopes a recently received $100,000 grant to fund alternatives for high-risk teens will change that.
"Evidence shows that multiple detentions as a juvenile actually increases the risk of committing crimes as an adult," said Ellis. "It's something we see quite often, actually."
In 2009, the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice published a report on recidivism among juvenile offenders released back into their communities across the state. The study found that nearly one-third re-offended within one year of their release, and the three-year recidivism rate was over 45 percent.
The Walker County Commissioner's Office recently approved a $100,000 grant to fund two alternatives for medium- and high-risk teens who find themselves in Ellis' courtroom: the Connections Program and Thinking for a Change.
Connections has been around for more than three years, and was able to be renewed through the grant. The model focuses on the individual, and features trained mentors for juvenile offenders to provide them with counsel, transportation, family or guardian support, and finding educational and employment services for the child. The one-on-one nature of the program and close monitoring of the youth involved has yielded good results, Ellis said, and he's looking forward to continued success.
Thinking for a Change, meanwhile, is newer. Ellis estimated it has been in existence for about six months — long enough for him to see positive effects in juvenile offenders who come to the court for probation reviews.
"For some of these kids, I won't lie, I really expected to see them back in my court because of their attitudes and the things they were involved in," said Ellis. "But I've seen them come back during reviews and they've told me how they've learned to think better and make better decisions."
Thinking for a Change focuses on a group classroom setting. It teaches a cognitive behavioral curriculum developed by the National Institute of Corrections, Ellis said, and has been used nationwide for juveniles dealing with probation, parole or prison.
When juveniles come into Ellis' courtroom, he has the option of sending them to either or both programs. Since his goal is a decrease in recidivism, Ellis said he usually directs them to at least one of the programs.
"I can't say for sure that I've done it every time, but my policy is that if they're even medium-risk for a re-offense, they go to one or both," he said.
The only instances in which Ellis said he would opt to send an offender off for detention is if they're a risk to the community. Such an offender would be placed under custody of the Juvenile Justice Department.
"If we already have a child who has offended several times, then we go in a different direction," Ellis said. "In addition to our job of rehabilitation, we also have to protect the community."
Ellis said the programs are part of Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal reform package. The Juvenile Justice Grant that Walker County approved is reimbursed to the county through the state and through federal money.
"I've already seen kids' lives that have been markedly changed because of these programs," said Ellis. "That's what juvenile court should be all about: trying to rehabilitate these children before they become adults. We want to teach them not to be criminals."