Fresh Lifelines for Youth: One Organization’s Answer to Juvenile Crime

Two decades ago, law student Christa Gannon was intent on becoming a prosecutor and locking away criminals for a long time. Her close friend in high school had been raped, which motivated her to attend law school at Northwestern University. While in school, she volunteered at a maximum security juvenile detention facility, and the stories she heard from the young men moved her and changed her path in a new direction.

Repeatedly she would hear, “If only I knew better,” and “If only someone believed in me,” from the youth, which stirred her to design a community program to meet those needs. She formed Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) in 2000.

Juvenile Justice in America

There’s a clear need to help young people change their paths before entering the circular nature of the prison system. The United States puts more teenagers and children in juvenile detention than any other developed nation in the world—more than 130,000 juveniles are detained each year.

But many recent studies show placing youth in correction facilities fails to help, and in some cases can cause more harm than good:

  • Locking up a juvenile costs states an average of $148,767 per person per year, according to a 2014 report by the Justice Policy Institute.
  • A National Bureau of Economic Research study in 2013 found that juvenile incarceration increases a person’s chances of returning to jail by 22 to 26 percent.

As an alternative to detention, FLY offers legal education, mentoring, and leadership training to youth offenders. The nonprofit organization based in Silicon Valley serves 2,000 young people ages 12-18 each year. FLY’s core offerings are its law education, leadership, and mentoring programs.

Juvenile Crime Prevention Program

Teenagers who are considered “high risk” or who are on probation go through a 12-week crime-prevention law class. Middle school students who are not yet in legal trouble get a five-day version of the course. Classes are held in school classrooms, juvenile halls, and community centers.

The program is designed to teach the youth about the consequences of crime and motivate them to change their behavior. Topics include theft, vandalism, unlawful sex, hate crimes, drugs and alcohol, and gangs. But more than learn facts about the law, the students develop confidence and life skills such as problem solving, anger management, and the ability to resist peer pressure.

The lessons are experientially designed to keep the teens engaged. One of the course’s highlights is a mock trial where the youth participate in the legal system, along with local judges, district attorneys, and public defenders.

Once the students complete the 12-week law program, the hope is they will continue with FLY in one of two programs: leadership or mentoring.

Leadership and Mentoring Programs

The leadership program builds on the law program’s foundation of developing life skills to better prepare the youth for graduating high school, getting a job, and for some, going to college. Teens who sign up for this one- to two-year program commit to providing 2,500 hours of community service. These activities range from reading stories to kindergartners, visiting with senior citizens, and speaking to middle school students about the dangers of drugs, gangs, violence, and crime.

Many of these teens have never volunteered before. The experience develops their empathy, builds their confidence, and increases their self-esteem. There are also activities such as a three-day wilderness retreat and group activities where the teens connect with a new, positive peer group.

The rest of the youth are paired with a mentor to work with them one-on-one. Most of these teens have received attention only when they’ve done something wrong, so the one-on-one relationship with a mentor who focuses on the teen’s positive aspects, is a welcome change.

Juvenile Justice System Facts

More than 54 percent of juvenile offenders released from juvenile detention facilities in California returned to custody within three years, an April 2015 Pew study “Re-Examining Juvenile Incarceration” reported.

In contrast, 75 percent of the youth in FLY’s leadership program do not reoffend. FLY’s programs have gained the support of judges and probation officers, and local government agencies help fund the organization.

“There’s a growing body of research showing that when youth are diverted away from the justice system into mentoring programs, they have much better outcomes, including a decreased likelihood of ending up back in custody,” said Dan Cooper, Ph.D., Co-Executive Director of Adler University’s Institute on Social Exclusion.

Gannon hopes to expand the program to more counties in the San Francisco Bay Area in the next few years.

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