CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Life in the Cape May County jail is pretty grim. Inmates get few amenities in this environment of cinderblock and steel. Even the meals are a constant reminder of the bleak surroundings.
"You don't get a plate. You eat right off the tray, which is carved out in pieces for the different foods. It's a different experience," Sheriff Gary Schaffer said.
The Sheriff's Office is launching a new program this summer to give youthful offenders a taste of life at the jail in hopes that the experience will persuade them to stay on the straight and narrow.
Called "Jail - It's not for me," the program makes juvenile offenders ages 13 to 17 spend the day as a jail inmate, complete with orange jumpsuit, plastic flip-flops and time alone behind bars. Starting in July, the offenders will be referred to the program by local judges, police chiefs and school resource officers.
Unlike other juvenile-intervention programs, such as the famous "Scared Straight" programs from the 1970s, juveniles will not have any direct contact with inmates.
Schaffer said research has called into question the effectiveness of these shock-style programs. But he thinks giving teenagers a taste of jail life unembellished by the over-the-top stunts associated with "Scared Straight" will prove effective.
"They're not going to have any face-to-face contact with inmates," Schaffer said. "The Youth Services Commission when we met with them had some statistics on recidivism rates. The Scared Straight programs didn't work."
Schaffer's staff presented the program to local judges, police chiefs and the youth advocates, all of whom supported the idea. The Sheriff's Office is the only county agency in South Jersey employing this kind of program.
"I think it will be effective," said Pat Devaney, director of the Cape May County Department of Human Services and the co-chairwoman of the Youth Services Commission. "The outcomes of Scared Straight are not ranked very positively. It demonstrates that it's not a barrier to recidivism."
But the Cape May County program's focus on counseling makes it superior to other kinds of jail introductions for juveniles, she said.
"It has a lot of skill-set building," she said. "It will show them the consequences of their behavior."
Middle Township Police Chief Chris Leusner said the program holds promise to help young people make better decisions.
"There are definitely juveniles we deal with who you can tell will commit crimes as adults," he said. "You don't see any reason why it's going to change for them as an adult. A program like this offers hope and an opportunity to change that trajectory."
A 2003 study by the national nonprofit research group WestEd found that these crime-deterrent programs had the opposite intended effect on the juveniles who participated.
Researchers examined nine studies of juvenile-awareness programs and found that the control group of troubled juveniles who did not participate committed fewer crimes over time than those who attended the program.
The reasons for this discrepancy are not clear, study author and WestEd senior researcher Anthony Petrosino said.
"There's an idea called peer-contagion theory. If you put a bunch of kids together and some are prone to crime, they will influence other kids to get involved in criminal behavior," he said. "Since these programs bring kids in as groups, maybe there is something in that."
Petrosino said public agencies such as the Cape May County Sheriff's Office can't just assume that since these programs intuitively should have some positive effect that they will.
"You would love to see that program work. If it worked, what a crime solution it would be. But unfortunately our review doesn't support that," he said.
Schaffer said his office plans to chart the program's effectiveness on offenders across different categories over time.
Lower Township police Capt. Brian Marker said he envisions the program helping teenagers accused of criminal mischief, thefts or shoplifting.
"We believe it's a well-rounded program and one that will support its goals," he said.
The Sheriff's Office will provide resources to help parents, who must provide permission for their children to participate.
"Some parents have no idea where to turn," Schaffer said.
The young offender will be picked up in a jail van at their local police department. From there they will be taken to the jail, where they will don a prison jumpsuit and eat a jail breakfast. Then they will tour the jail and spend 30 minutes in a cell before getting a jail lunch.
Sheriff's Office staff will talk to the juveniles about the potential consequences of gang affiliations, drugs and alcohol. The juveniles finish the day by filling out a questionnaire about their experience.
"One of the questions is, ‘Do you think you could spend one to two years of your life living like this?'" Schaffer said.
Schaffer said he hopes the answer is a resounding no. But in a county jail that gets more than 300 new inmates each year, that might be wishful thinking.
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