Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Grants fund community service programs for juvenile offenders in Copiah and Lincoln Counties

November 9, 2001

Juvenile offenders in Copiah and Lincoln counties are picking up roadside trash and doing other community service work as a result of a federal grant.

The Copiah County Youth Court has been approved to receive a $14,303 grant to pay for supervision of youthful offenders in community service work. It is the second fiscal year that the Copiah County program has been funded. Last year's grant was for $13,690. The program got underway March 12.

The Lincoln County Youth Court expanded its community service program this month with a $14,718 grant. It was Lincoln County's first year to get the grant money. The program was previously supervised by volunteers. Some volunteer work is still involved.

Chancellor Ed Patten, whose 15th Chancery District covers Copiah and Lincoln Counties, said he saw a need for alternative intermediate sanctions for juvenile offenders while he previously served as Copiah County Youth Court referee. He wanted to develop a program that would get juvenile offenders' attention and give them incentive to clean up their behavior before they became repeat offenders and without having to send them to training school.

While running for the office of chancellor, Patten made a commitment to search for programs and grant money that would provide alternatives and reduce recidivism in the Youth Court. Patten and his staff obtained two grants and assisted in the application for a third. All are aimed at helping the counties meet needs of their youth.

Funding is provided through the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The grants are administered by the Mississippi Division of Public Safety Planning, Office of Justice Programs.

In Lincoln County, male juvenile offenders ages 14-17 will clean the courthouse and wash buses for the Lincoln County Public School District, said Debra Littleton, Lincoln County Youth Court intake officer and project director. Littleton said about 20 youths are in the program. They do 20 to 40 hours of community service. The grant money pays for a part-time employee to supervise the male youths.

Female juveniles who are ordered to do community service work in Lincoln County are supervised by a teacher at Mullins Alternative School, Littleton said. The teacher does the supervision as a volunteer. The females clean bathrooms, mop and wash windows at the school.

Juveniles in the Copiah County community service program pick up trash along roadsides and do cleaning work at churches and Hardy Wilson Hospital in Hazlehurst, said Sharon Watkins, a Utica Community College campus police officer who also works part-time supervising teens in the community service program.

Patten said, "Our objective was to develop programs that would assist counties from a monetary standpoint and reduce recidivism for youthful offenders."

The recidivism rate in Copiah County Youth Court since the community service program began has been 5.1 percent, said Stephanie Ganucheau, staff attorney for the 15th Chancery District and project director for the Copiah County community service program. Comparison figures from previous years were not available.

Thirty males and females ages 13 to 17 are now doing community service on orders of the Copiah County Youth Court, Watkins said.

Children as young as 10 may be assigned to the program, said Copiah County Youth Court Referee Jeff Varas.

Between March 12 and June 30, the end of the fiscal year, 32 youths were assigned to do between 20 and 50 hours of community service in the Copiah County program, said Ganucheau. Only two failed to complete the program.

The youths frequently come into the program with an attitude that they don't want to be there and don't want to be told what to do, Watkins said.

"When they don't comply with the program, I give them extra hours. If it gets so bad, I bring them back before the judge," Watkins said.

She is a tough task master.

"I have taken a lot of them through their residential areas to have them pick up and clean up," Watkins said. "It's humiliating for their relatives and friends and neighbors to see them out there on a Saturday when they could be doing other things. I put them right where they don't want to be seen."

"It's productive. They work faster and they work harder," Watkins said.

Watkins also has plans to have the juveniles adopt a section of highway to clean regularly. It may be a section of U.S. Highway 51.

"I don't baby them while they are there. I listen to them and I talk to them," Watkins said. "I give them my home number and tell them they can call me any time." Several have called.

Watkins said she also talks to parents.

"I'm a parent myself. I hate to see what the children are getting into," Watkins said.

Varas said he sees the community service program as a way to alter a path toward prison. He uses the program as a means of getting juveniles' attention and making them stop and think about the consequences of their conduct and their choices. Varas said he orders about 80 percent of the juvenile offenders who come to Youth Court to do community service work.

Training school is considered a last resort. Before the community service program was available, the Youth Court had no intermediate sanction to use when juveniles who are considered status offenders violated court orders. A status offender is a youth who is before the court as a result of some action that would not be considered a crime for an adult, such as truancy, running away from home or refusing to submit to parental authority

"You would get the same kids going back and going back to court," Ganucheau said. "You don't want to lock them up for not going to school or for sassing their mama, or for running away."

Varas said that since the program was implemented in Copiah County, "It's cut down on the cases that actually have to come before the Youth Court."

Varas and court staff are working to expand the community service program. He wants to soon be able to offer teen pregnancy prevention education and alcohol and tobacco education. He wants to involve the juveniles in a recently opened Boys and Girls Club. Teens would spend part of a day in class and the rest working.

Varas wants to expand the work options. Plans are being worked out to send some of the juveniles to a Hazlehurst food bank to assist staff.

Varas wants to give the juveniles an appreciation of the "service" part of community service. He wants them to have "a sense of community, to look around and see their impact."

For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452.