Grant to help Rock County re-engineer juvenile programs

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008
— A couple days in jail might sound easy compared to 12 weeks of intensive academic and social programs.

But when Rock County started delivering that programming to minority juvenile offenders at Beloit's Merrill Neighborhood Center in 2003, it was such a good fit kids didn't want to stop after 12 weeks.

"They asked us, what do we have to do to stay here? Do we have to re-offend?" said Lisa Goers, juvenile detention diversion program supervisor.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, Rock County will use a $100,000 MacArthur Foundation grant for each of the next three years to reproduce the Merrill Center programming in Janesville.

The money will pay for a director in Janesville as well as someone to oversee both programs and to make community connections.

First, a home is needed.

Jason Witt, deputy director of the human services department, and his staff are scouring Janesville looking for a place that will be as good a fit as the Merrill Center is in Beloit.

Regina Dunkin, director of the Merrill Center, said Janesville residents can help in the search by being open-minded.

Recognizing differences in cultures doesn't make you racist, Dunkin said.

"People are scared to be called a racist," Dunkin said.

"It's OK. We know there are differences. You have to be open to learn from others that are different. They're not going to curse at you."

The most important thing Janesville residents can do to help find a home for juvenile programming is be ready to volunteer, Dunkin said.

"You need to help make this work," she said. "If this person isn't productive, maybe you're going to get mugged."

The beginning

In 2003, 30 percent of Rock County kids in criminal detention were not white.

But only 7 percent of the county's juvenile population was non-white.

Something had to give.

"In every stage of the criminal justice system, minorities are over represented—from arrests to court to jail," Witt said.

Rock County started studying what black and Hispanic teens were doing to get arrested and to keep themselves in the jail or on probation.

They chose to focus on detention to bring the number of jailed minority teens to a number more representative of the county.

Four years later, the county has earned national recognition for its efforts and $100,000 a year for three years to keep the momentum going.

Rock is one of eight counties in the United States to earn a grant from the MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change program.

The county earned the grant for three reasons, Witt said.

-- The commitment of police, judges, the district attorney and others working in juvenile justice to address racial disproportionality.

-- The measurable progress the county made from 2002 to 2006.

In 2002, 328 black juveniles were detained in Rock County. They made up 32 percent of the juvenile detention center population.

By 2006, that number had dropped by 109 juveniles, and black youth made up 24 percent of the population.

The total number of incarcerated youth dropped from 1,017 to 894.

-- Workers' competency in using data to make decisions. While the human factor is important, numbers provide one measure of success.

"When you look at any successful industry, they know moment to moment what their expenses and assets are," Witt said. "We're dealing with things that are much more important. We shouldn't spare anything in looking at what's available as far as technology."

When the juvenile justice staff started studying the problem, they found the majority of the kids in detention already were in the system. Most had broken parole by getting into a fight at school or using alcohol or marijuana.

"We weren't doing a very good job once youth came into the system," Witt said. "We weren't giving them the competencies to stay out."

So if jail wasn't deterring kids from crime, what would?

Merrill Center

Participants meet at the Merrill Center three times a week for three weeks. Sessions are divided into:

-- Anger management—Kids role-play, think about the best way to handle different situations and talk about how things are going at school.

-- Alcohol and drug addiction—Those who need it get intensive counseling. A 12-year-old would not participate in programs with older teens that have started using drugs and alcohol regularly.

-- Academics—Kids can do homework or get tutoring. Staff monitor attendance and behavior for those attending school.

Sometimes, having a safe, stable place to go is the biggest benefit of the program, Goers said. Often, kids who have finished the program keep coming to Merrill to volunteer or just hang out.

"Sometimes they need just a connection of, ‘Hey. How was your day?' It's some really basic stuff," Goers said.

In 2003, the program was intended for kids who were cycling through the system. As the minority disproportionality dropped, the county in 2007 found resources to start a similar program for first-time offenders.

The kids at the Merrill Center aren't the only ones to benefit, said Ed Pearson, superintendent of the Rock County Juvenile Detention Center. Getting minor offenders out of the detention center allows him to focus on youth with worse records who really need help.

And Pearson said he speaks for the African American community when he said it's good to live in a community that's doing something.

"Disproportionality in minority contact is not a new issue," Pearson said. "Growing up, you can see more of us get contacted or confined than anybody. I don't have to say that. It has been identified as an issue.

"For the entire community, it's exciting to know there are efforts being made. People are out there trying to help that issue become a non-issue."


Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision that Americans of every kind could live in harmony remains at the top of the nation's agenda nearly 40 years after his assassination. The Janesville Gazette is examining local aspects of that vision as it marks Martin Luther King Day 2008.

Monday—Lots of schools and businesses take a day off to mark Martin Luther King Day, but not the Janesville School District. Reporter Frank Schultz tells what the local district does instead.

Today—Rock County has done so well in addressing the imbalance of minorities in juvenile detention that it's earned a grant to expand a Beloit-based program to Janesville. Reporter Ann Marie Ames talks to two Beloit boys about how their lives have changed.

Wednesday—Eric Beck remembers when his family was one of three black families in Janesville. Reporter Stacy Vogel tells the story of Eric and his daughter, Amy, and asks them about Janesville's growing diversity.

Thursday—Which Wisconsin school district with the highest concentration of native Spanish speakers? Delavan-Darien. Reporter Kayla Bunge asks how the district has adapted.

Friday—Walworth County is becoming more diverse, but does local government reflect that trend? Reporter Mike Heine takes a look.

Last updated: 1:11 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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