As part of my Churchill Fellowship, I visited colleagues at the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice based just outside Louisville. My first day was spent talking to staff at one of the Day Treatment Programs in order to understand more about how the DJJ in Kentucky supports young people who have been excluded from mainstream schools, or who were transitioning from other Juvenile Justice programs or facilities.
Young people start their day early with a breakfast and begin classes soon after. The walls of the main school area are covered in a variety of posters, reminding the students what is expected of them, but also what they can expect from their school. One such poster reminded students to be and expect in return:
Be respectful, Be responsible, Be safe.
To have a positive attitude
Respect each other and staff
Behave with integrity
Give your best effort
The young people who attend the school can access a comprehensive range of specialised services to support them as individuals. In addition to regular classes, including Maths, English, World History, and IT the young people can train in welding and also carpentry, giving them skills as well as academic knowledge. They also have access to a range of sporting activities. Students can learn in a safe and supported environment.
The school regime also works extremely effectively with the aim of breaking cycles of offending, violence, and disengagement, with students being placed in groups and rewarded for good attendance and behaviour. The rewards at the end of each week include: Access to a selection of items from a rewards cupboard, the gaming room, and pizza with the Principal. This method could be extremely useful for young people who have been gang involved, because it encourages individuals to work as part of an allocated group in order to obtain a shared positive outcome.
Importantly, it is also recognised that many of the young people attending will have experienced trauma and violence and that they may still be processing these feelings and events. For this reason, attendees can access counsellors whenever they feel they need to do so, and in speaking to one of the counselling staff it seems that young people regularly use this service. Family counselling and support for parents is also offered as part of school attendance.
Coping with aggression and impulsivity
Low impulse and aggression controls are, not surprisingly, associated with violent offending. In their General Theory of Crime Gottfredson & Hirschi (1990) suggested that individuals with low levels of self-control were less likely to think about the consequences of their actions and so more likely to make the decision to commit an offence. Low impulse control has also been associated with group offending both in terms of individuals who share lower levels of control being attracted to each other and the influence of membership of a delinquent group on an individual. Aggression control can be both a negative (lower control) or protective (higher control) risk factor for young people. For some individuals they will not finish developing their impulse controls until they reach their mid-twenties. This can be extremely frustrating for some young people who describe feeling a ‘red mist’ descending but no means of controlling it. It is therefore extremely important that young people who exhibit impulsivity and aggression should be supported with appropriate psychological and therapeutic interventions.
Staff at the day school that I visited use Aggression Replacement Training. This is a type of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that was developed specifically for adolescents; it addresses social skills, anger control, and moral reasoning. The technique is used extensively in North America and Australia for juveniles. The approach was developed in the 1980s and there have been several pieces of academic research to study its effectiveness. The results are varied in terms of consistent effectiveness; however, this is likely to be the case with a population that is in itself so heterogenous in that the causes of aggression and impulsivity may not be the same. Studies have shown that the technique can be extremely successful, particularly when an individual approach to a young person’s behaviour is implemented. It was precisely this approach that I observed at the day school. For young people to be able to be comprehensively and holistically supported with psychologically informed interventions at a single site as part of their educational experience and journey is crucial. It would be interesting to see what impact this approach would have if it were introduced in the UK as a standard practice.
On my journey back to Louisville the Uber driver asked me what I had been doing there. It transpired that his son had been a student at one of the Kentucky Juvenile Justice facilities a few years ago. He said that his son had become involved with a bad group and that he had committed an offence. I asked him how his son had found his experience and what he was doing now. The driver responded by saying it had been the wakeup call his son had needed, he had decided that he wanted to make the most of his life, and he was now in his early twenties and fully employed in a successful job.
Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice
Mr Tim Corder, Division Director
Mr John Ellington, Facilities Superintendent
Mr George Scott, Facilitites Regional Manager
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Steinberg, L. D., Cauffman, E., & Monahan, K. (2015). Psychosocial maturity and desistance from crime in a sample of serious juvenile offenders. Laurel, MD: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.pathwaysstudy.pitt.edu.
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