Successful Youth Reentry Program–Garrett College–DC Public Safety Radio

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Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host, Leonard Sipes.  The title of today’s program is Successful Rehabilitation Efforts.  I travel frequently through Maryland’s Garrett County, one of the most beautiful places in the United States, resting on the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and there I read a local newspaper called the Republican, an editorial, and it addressed a college program by Garrett College and serving youth in the area, actually from Baltimore City at a youth camp in Garrett County, and I’ll read very briefly from this editorial.  The focus of the story is the Garrett Backbone College Program, which affords an opportunity for youth incarcerated at the Backbone Youth Center to obtain college credit, and more importantly, an avenue for productive life outside of the correctional system.  The editorial goes on to say that the recidivism rate ordinarily for juveniles is 70-80%.  However, since the Garrett Backbone College Program has been in existence, the recidivism rate of youth who have been in the program is 38%.  Not only have two-thirds of the participants converted to a law abiding way of life, but a number of them have become highly successful.  To talk about this program today, we have Elizabeth Grant.  She is the Director of Liberal Arts and Justice Studies there at Garrett College.  The internet address for Garrett College is  Elizabeth, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Elizabeth Grant:  Hi, Len.  Thank you, it’s good to be with you today.

Len Sipes:  Well, I’m really, really appreciative of you being with us today, because one of the things that I have seen in my 42 years within the criminal justice system is that most programs, when they’re dealing with offenders, the success rate generally speaking is somewhere in the 10-20% ballpark, and when you consider that this editorial says that two-thirds of the people who have attended your program, the Garrett Backbone College Program, that two-thirds have gone on to become successful.  To me, it’s a phenomenal accomplishment.  So I have two questions to start the program: describe the program, and how did you achieve such wonderful results?

Elizabeth Grant:  Oh, you’re going to have a hard time with me keeping me reeled in!  I am so excited about this program, and I love an opportunity to brag on it!

Len Sipes:  Well, brag on it!

Elizabeth Grant:  This started as a brainchild shortly, well actually, prior to my arrival at Garrett College, but I got swept in it in short order, and it was an effort by Mike Lewis, who is currently the principal for the Western Maryland Youth Centers through the department of juvenile services, and our former president, Dr. Steve Herman, and it was centered around an idea that they referred to as redemptive justice.  Now restorative justice is kind of on the scene now where offenders have a duty to make good for the harm that they’ve created to society, and redemptive justice goes a step further and says, you know, you’ve harmed yourself as well.  You the offender have harmed yourself as well, and you need to do what you need to do to get put back together again, whether it’s getting vocational skills or understanding the impact that your behavior has on the larger culture, and so on and so forth.  So they said, wouldn’t it be great if youth that are in the custody of the state have an opportunity to go to college or to have exposure to things that otherwise they may not have, and the youth that we have in Western Maryland actually come from all over Maryland, not just Baltimore, and we do actually serve some kids in DC as well.  So we started out in 2006 with 12 kids, and we were at Backbone Mountain, which is one of the four youth centers in Western Maryland, and decided to start small with two classes, so we offered an English class and a Sociology class, and it was very well received, and since that time, we have actually served 180 students for a collective of over 1,000 college credits.  We’ve offered 368 college courses, and the students are able to achieve graduation with their GED.  So in the short time, which is usually about six months, students are able to get a leg up on getting their GED, so that chapter is accomplished, but then also to move on so that they’re able to see that college isn’t really that scary, and that they have options.  The idea has never been to keep them here in Garrett County and at Garrett College, but that this is an opportunity for them to be exposed to, oh, so this is what college is like, and gosh, I can do this.  And I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a number of the courses, and I tell you what, they wear me out.  I did a course one summer, the summer semesters are condensed.  We meet for a longer period of time over a shorter number of weeks.  So I ended up doing a sociology class that was four hours long, which ordinarily is just punishment for students and faculty alike!  But it was absolutely thrilling to do it up in Backbone, because the students were making connections.  For the first week or so, no butter’s going to melt in their mouth, and they’re just too cool for all of this, and then when they have their first taste of, oh my gosh, I get this.  I’m not stupid, I can do this, then they just catch on fire, and they ask questions, they integrate the material, they actually do their homework.  Now there may be some truth to, they truly are a captive audience, and there isn’t a lot to distract them from doing their assignments, but the reality is, they do their assignments, and they’re, for the most part, an exceptionally bright bunch of kids.  I mean, they’re not there for singing too loud in the choir.  But they’re able to make the connections and connect the dots, and so over time, we were able to offer a couple of semesters, we were able to offer as many as fifteen credits, which is a full load by any college standard, and so students coming out of their six month, what started out to be getting in trouble and getting sent away, at the end of that, they’re able to leave not only with their GED, but with a semester of college under their belt, and then go home to Montgomery Community College or Anne Arundel or any of the colleges that they want to go to, and these credits, we have decided to make them general education requirements so that these credits will transfer to wherever they are going.  They’re not starting cold.  They don’t have to make that leap from, “I don’t know what college is like” and whether I can do it.

Len Sipes:  One of the things I do want to get into is because I have direct experience as a gang counselor in Baltimore City, I did a year of, where the judge said either go to a job corps or go to jail, and so I ran a group within a prison system, and so these are not easy individuals to deal with.  These are not the cream of the crop that you’re talking about, these are individuals that are caught up in the criminal justice system, they’re juveniles, to the point where the state of Maryland has decided to put them into a center.  I’m not quite sure the word incarceration is the best choice of words, but they’ve basically removed them from their homes and put them in these centers, so these are tough kids.  These are not easy kids to reach, which is one of the reasons why traditionally, we’ve had such a high recidivism rate with that particular population.  Tell me why two-thirds succeeded.  What is the secret sauce?  What is the magic formula where — I said at the beginning of the program, these efforts, when they’re successful, generally range in the 10-20% level, two-thirds of your people did well.  How?  Why?

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, you’ve touched upon a really critical differentiation between the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system, and it’s a philosophical different that unfortunately doesn’t always filter down to practice.  The juvenile justice system was created by an act that separated youth, and the term juvenile varies from state to state, but generally anyone under 18, from the adult population because there was this belief that youth are not, don’t think things through as well, and actually a lot of the research on brain development is beginning to bear that out, and that there is a better hope that young people can turn it around.  They make stupid mistakes, and they should learn from their stupid mistakes, but then go on to be productive citizens rather than being a drag on the whole society by being an incarcerated adult.  Now ideally, we could also employ this kind of mindset in a criminal justice system, but the prevailing thought is that, by the time they are adults, particularly as they get into middle age brackets, they’re less likely to be able to change their behaviors, change their mindsets, understand the impact of their behavior, and so forth.  So understanding that the approach to juvenile justice is much different than the approach in criminal justice, has been where, I think, we’ve had our success.  Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a juvenile justice bachelor’s degree or graduate degree.  They’re all a specialty of criminal justice which, in my mind, is unfortunate, because it’s not the same.  You can’t take someone that has a criminal justice mindset and assume that they’re automatically going to understand the nuances of juvenile justice, particularly when it comes to these concepts of redemptive justice and rehabilitation, and for some of the people we work with, it’s not even rehabilitation, because they haven’t had the skills in the first place.

Len Sipes:  All right, but I’m going to take you back to what I read from the Republican newspaper.  70-80%, ordinarily within the larger juvenile justice system, fail.  The bulk of adult offenders, two-thirds are rearrested after three years, 50% go back to prison.  That’s Department of Justice statistics.  What is the secret sauce here in your program?

Elizabeth Grant:  We take a radical departure from the lock ‘em up and throw away the key, and all they need’s a little discipline, and by god, they’re going to do it our way, and they’re going to learn how to respect authority, and those are the tools of the criminal justice system, by and large, and I’m trying to be careful with the way I choose my words, but we basically want to beat them over the head with, you have been a bad member of society, and we’re going to punish you, and that trickles down into juvenile justice because we don’t have a ready pool of people that understand that you’ve got to say, you know what, what you did was a problem, how are we, how are you going to turn it around?  Let us show you perhaps some options you might want to think about, including education and so on.  And what we have done, and one of the things that puts Garrett College, I think, in the forefront nationally is that we have an Associates’ Degree in juvenile justice, so our specialty and our focus is, this is what it is to work with young people.  It is not the same as working in the criminal justice system.  So for example, we refer to the students that are in the Garrett Backbone College Program as scholars, and there’s this thread that runs through everything we do that we create things by speaking it, and if we expect these young men to be young men and scholars and gentlemen, I mean, when I refer to them collectively in a group and I’m addressing them, I will say “gentlemen.”  And how often has that happened in their life?

Len Sipes:  I don’t know, but I remember my experience in Job Corps.  It was not an easy experience.  These kids were not easy to deal with.  There was, and now again, ours ranged from, say, 16, up to, I think at that point, 22 or 23.  It was the most exhausting job that I’ve ever had, and I will, again, go back to the fact that two-thirds of your people, the people who entered this program, were successful.  That’s phenomenal.

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, and it takes a willingness on the part of the adults, first of all, to be adults to be willing to pay for the crimes of everyone else that’s ever worked with this youth, because we come into the college program, and actually, we’ve established a little bit of a reputation so that some kids will actually stay longer than they have to just so they can finish the college program, but we come into it, and those, none of the scholars in the Backbone College Program have any reason to take us at our word, or to believe that we are there for anything other than self serving purposes, and so we, the adults going on, have to be willing to earn their respect and pay our dues.  I mean, it’s kind of flipping the whole model, it’s like, these, the youth that are in these programs have been through things I can’t even imagine, and probably things that most people don’t even think about, and for us to go in and approach them as, you’re broken, we’re going to fix you, you’re going to do it our way, we’ll tell you what to do, is just more of the same for them.  But when you go in and you address them as “sir,” or you say, all right gentlemen, we’re going to do this, and you expect, of course you can do this, because you’re bright, and it’s –

Len Sipes:  But you mentioned –

Elizabeth Grant:  – it wrecks their equilibrium.  I mean, they’re used to being tough, and nothing’s going to get through –

Len Sipes:  Right, that’s exactly right.

Elizabeth Grant:  – you know, and we disrupt that, and it throws them off balance, so that the responses they’ve always given that are essentially defense mechanisms don’t work for them anymore.  While they’re groping around looking for things, we’re suggesting like interpersonal skills and responsibility and accountability, and that sort of thing.

Len Sipes:  But let’s go back before the break in terms of talking about the kids in the program, because most have raised themselves.  Most have gotten up and poured their own cereal at 7:00 in the morning and sent themselves off to school.  Most –

Elizabeth Grant:  And their younger siblings.

Len Sipes:  And their younger siblings.  Most didn’t have a father inside.  A lot of times, the mother is not there, they have a lot of times, not all, but certainly a lot of times, they have grown up, and I’m not making any excuses for their criminality, I’m not making any excuses for their behavior, I’m simply stating facts as they are, a lot of times, they are self-raised, and when you become, when you’re self-raised, you have a hard edge towards the rest of the world that is sometimes unbreakable.

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, I think it’s the rare exception when it’s unbreakable.  The approach that I like to take whenever I’m working with someone that’s going to be challenging is to truly believe they’re doing the best they can, and that their behavior is serving a purpose for them.  Now it may be anti-social behavior, it may be destructive behavior, but it’s serving a purpose for them, and that is certainly true for a number of the students, and almost all of them do have a hard edge.

Len Sipes:  We have –

Elizabeth Grant:  Some of them come from –

Len Sipes:  Go ahead.

Elizabeth Grant:  Some of them come from pretty nice homes that, for whatever reason, something goes south.  But I’d like to be able to approach anyone that I’m working with that I think is going to be challenging with the belief that they’re doing the best they can.  It’s not working for the rest of us, but it is serving some purpose for them, and to be able to get around to what that purpose is, and then as I said earlier, this whole idea of treating them differently than they expect to be treated, kind of throws them off balance.  So now they’re looking for, okay, now what do I do?  And that gives us the perfect opportunity to say, here’s an idea, and it does matter that you’re a member of your community, one of the things that we’re doing very well in Western Maryland, I think, is getting youth from all of the youth centers out in the community to do service in the community.  They get AmeriCorps credit, which they can then later use, but they are all over the county, and in Allegheny County as well, doing a lot of community service type things that give them a sense, I mean, it gives them practice to be pro-social members of the community, which most of them don’t have an experience with, and then the other benefit to that is it gives the community a chance to see these youth as something other than little criminals.

Len Sipes:  We’re more than halfway through the program.  Let me re-introduce our guest, Elizabeth Grant.  She is the Director of Liberal Arts and Justice Studies at Garrett College,, talking about a program that has proven to help two-thirds of the juveniles who are involved in this program lead successful lives, which is one of the best statistics I have ever read, which is one of the reasons why, when I read the Republican newspaper, I knew I had to do this interview with Elizabeth Grant to find out more about this program.  So Elizabeth, we’ve basically established that kids from all over the state of Maryland, they come up to Garrett County, Garrett County is sort of like Maryland’s mountainous county, it’s beautiful forest, beautiful area, the Savage River State Forest is the largest state forest in the state of Maryland, I think 60,000 acres, so it’s a beautiful, beautiful area, so they come from all over the state of Maryland, they come up there, they interact with the college, and you have had quite a rate of success with them, and we’ve talked about the reasons for that success, but the downside of all this is that there is a possibility that the program may go away, correct?

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, yeah, that is a black cloud on the horizon that we’re seeing, and I want to backtrack just a minute.  Our students do come from all over Maryland, and we also serve some students from the District area.

Len Sipes:  The District of Columbia, okay.

Elizabeth Grant:  It’s small, and it’s part of Maryland.  Or it’s located –

Len Sipes:  Right next to Maryland, yes.

Elizabeth Grant:  We have a couple of issues that I’m not sure if they’re budget related, or from whence they come, but one of the huge concerns in my mind is that Western Maryland Youth Centers are the last of the Department of Juvenile Services facilities that will be assumed by the Maryland Department of Education, and this was initiated actually under Governor Ehrlich to have MSDE take the education role with the Department of Juvenile Services, and because of the mandates for MSDE, there won’t be time for students at any of the youth centers to be out doing the AmeriCorps activities that they’ve done, which are thousands and thousands of hours, and it provides them a stipend of about $1,200 hours that they can use then for vocation or continued education after they leave, nor will it allow time for the college program that we have going on now, and the great big fly in the ointment is that some of the students that are served in residential facilities operated by the Department of Juvenile Services already have a GED or a Maryland high school diploma, and in those instances, they would not be eligible for MSDE education, so they’ve got this block of time during the day, this six hours that, what do you do?  And in those cases, the option has been, at least historically with the other facilities, they don’t do anything.  They’re basically housed.  They may go out and work on the grounds and that sort of thing, but some of the stuff that is going to be cut out for the students are things like the aquaculture program.  There have been a couple of initiatives where students have learned to raise fish, either for commercial purposes, like Tilapia, or the Rockfish that they’ve released in streams in Maryland, or the sunfish, and in the process of raising these fish, they not only learn everything from soup to nuts about fish, but they also learn about water quality, and they have done a number of projects where they monitor the streams and do stream cleanup, and they plant native species and help filter the water, and the good thing about that is it translates to a marketable skill once they are out of custody of Department of Juvenile Services, they can go down to, and in fact, we actually have some youth that are placed in programs with Parks and People Green in Baltimore.  They’re able to go to the zoo and say, I can test water quality, or they’re able to work with Department of Natural Resources, and the other silver lining to that is that they’re saving DNR a significant portion of their budget in just man hours, because as they’re learning these things and performing these services, then DNR is freed up to do other things.

Len Sipes:  The Department of Natural Resources, right.

Elizabeth Grant:  – organizations that the youth work with, like fire halls and areas, the food pantry and book distribution things, that they go in there, they’re useful.

Len Sipes:  So the whole idea is –

Elizabeth Grant:  There’s value in being useful.

Len Sipes:  The whole idea is to participate in the program through Garrett Community College for the first time to get a leg up on a college education, and at the same time, to go out and do community service work in such a way that it takes the burden off of Garrett County and any county that these camps happen to be located at, so they’re out there basically serving the community, you said the books program, I do a lot of walking on the trails in Garrett County.  I’m assuming that they’ve maintained some of those trails.

Elizabeth Grant:  Oh yes, absolutely.  And it services the state, actually not just Garrett County, but it’s statewide, the benefits of the youth learning ourselves, and the fact that they can practice being a member of community is huge for a number of the scholars that we have, and the youth that are in facilities, that’s not been their experience.  It’s been looking out for number 1 in a dog eat dog world, which they need to be able to do, because they’ll be eaten alive if they can’t.  But at the same time, they’ve had no experience and no practice in being community leaders, or as being viewed as anyone positive, and there’s tremendous value in feeling like you do have value to contribute to a community.

Len Sipes:  Well that would be an incredible shame if the program was altered, don’t you think?  I mean, it is because of administrative changes, there’s the possibility of the program being affected or the program being shut down.

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, both, and when you say administrative changes, that’s something that the Department of Juvenile Services is chronically having to deal with.  The secretary is a cabinet position, which is political.  Typically, we’ve had a secretary appointed every four years depending on how long the governor’s able to stay in office, so that’s like new leadership every four years, which each leader wants to come in and leave his or her footprint on things, and sometimes that’s difficult for the people who are actually on the front mind to translate, and it’s certainly difficult on the kids, because policies change with each different administration, so yeah, there’s the change in administration, but there’s also the changes that are coming down that are part of regulations of other agencies, for example, the move with MSDE coming in to take the educational piece of youth that are in DJS facilities.  One of the beauties that Garrett College enjoys, and it’s translated to the college program that we operate, and also to the youth centers in Western Maryland, is we’re able to have a degree of autonomy because we are small, and we can put programs into place, and we know the other partners that we’re working with.  I mean, I know Mike Lewis who is the principal, and we can put things together because he knows people, I know people, and people are willing to come and be involved in this in part because of our professional reputation, Mike’s and mine, but because of the reputation of the program.  They’ve heard about us.  They’ve seen our kids out, and so when we say, how about we come out and help you with your fish fry.  Great!  This is a model that’s understood in juvenile justice, but that’s, it’s still just a corner of the whole industry, if you will.  Unfortunately, the prison industry’s the fastest growing, and it extends down to juvenile justice.  I’m also familiar with a program called Rite of Passage that operates nationwide, but they have facilities in five different states, and they absolutely have hit on the head what it takes, and it’s getting kids engaged in a community setting, and exposing them to various options.  And they have the luxury of being private non-profit.

Len Sipes:  You’ve been able, well let me back up for a second.  But you’ve been able to document the fact that two-thirds of the kids are successful.  That is very rare.  That is very unusual.  That doesn’t happen with the vast majority of criminal justice programs, and certainly, well let me ask my question, my question is, certainly others within the criminal justice system, certainly others within government, within the state of Maryland, beyond the state of Maryland, have heard about this program, correct, and the success of the program?

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, anybody that I can get to listen to me!  And I know that various secretaries of the Department of Juvenile Services have been excited about what we’ve been doing.  But I’m not sure that we’re heard as far and wide as what might be useful.  I mean, we have been called by political leaders and educational leaders a model for Maryland, and I might be so bold to suggest that we are a model for the country.

Len Sipes:  You may be!  With that level of success, you may be.

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, the problem is that we need to have a degree of professionalism and autonomy that requires a degree of trust that, in this day and age, and I don’t know if it’s just the way things are, but some of the things that have happened on the grander scheme is getting hard to come by.  We were right on the money to start keeping statistics the moment we rolled this out –

Len Sipes:  Oh, absolutely!

Elizabeth Grant:  – and I’m so glad that we did, but one of the heartbreaks that we have is the number of students that we don’t know where they are, because through budgeting, and we as a country say that youth are our future, and we want to invest in youth, and every governor I can remember since I was voting has come in on the platform of reform for juvenile justice or juvenile services, or making kids, having more kids turn out well, but the reality, when it comes down to having qualified people in the jobs, not qualified, but highly trained, really, people in the jobs that can distinguish between the criminal justice mentality and the juvenile justice mentality, that’s not as supported by funding and by, quite frankly, status.

Len Sipes:  We only have a couple minutes left, so we’re going to have to start getting down into some very basic facts and questions.  Do you see, is there any hope for this program?  Will this radio show, will the influence of others save the program?

Elizabeth Grant:  I hope so.  I hope so.  You’ve given our contact information.  I would be happy to talk at length with anyone that wants me to, and I would hope that people that are within earshot of this program will feel comfortable in contacting the governor, Governor O’Malley, and saying, you know, I heard this broadcast, this sounds like a really great program, but I understand it might be in trouble.  How can we help support it?  And certainly to share that with Secretary Abed as well.  They’re aware of the good things that are happening, but I don’t know that the powers that be are aware of the groundswell of support that really this program deserves.

Len Sipes:  Well anytime that you have a major editorial in the newspaper talking about the success of the program, I mean, somebody –

Elizabeth Grant:  Well, the headline of the editorial that says GC program saves lives, and I absolutely believe that.

Len Sipes:  Right.  Well if two-thirds are successful, if two-thirds of the kids that you’re touching are successful, considering the rates that we ordinarily get out of programs, there’s something unique and something really interesting happening at Garrett College and the Backbone Mountain Camp.  There’s some secret sauce, there’s something really dynamic that is creating this success, and so I was hoping that we would bring out that program, that secret sauce today, and what I hear from you, that it’s commitment.  You on ly have a couple seconds left.

Elizabeth Grant:  Yeah, it is commitment, and it’s believing that it can work, because if you believe it can work, then you’ll do what you can to make it work, and the two-thirds success is couched a little bit, because we can’t just back that out from the recidivism rate, which actually, I’m glad [OVERLAY] –

Len Sipes:  Don’t have much time left.  It’s now 32%.

Elizabeth Grant:  Right, 32%.  But we also have a big chunk of kids, we don’t know where they are.  So the success rate isn’t quite as high as two-thirds.  It might be.  But we aren’t sure, because we don’t know what’s going on with the kids that we can’t track.

Len Sipes:  Our guest today has been Elizabeth Grant.  She is the Director of Liberal Arts and Justice Studies at Garrett College in Western Maryland,  Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety.  We really appreciate your letters, cards, phone calls, emails, all the suggestions in terms of future programs, and please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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