A partnership between the University of Georgia and Athens-Clarke County is helping young criminal offenders turn something negative into a positive.
Twenty-eight young people from Athens-Clarke County recently graduated from YouthServe, a diversion program offered through the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court and ACC Probation Services.
The program allowed participants aged 17 to 24 who are on probation for misdemeanor criminal offenses to engage in community service projects and leadership development activities designed to steer them in the right direction. Participants also satisfy their community service requirement by completing the program.
“The goal of the program is to provide the participants with an opportunity to reflect on their actions and think about how they can be better leaders to avoid making poor decisions again,” said Emily Boness, a public service associate with the Fanning Institute.
Participants learned about leadership styles and principles of leadership, conflict, values, decision making, goal setting, and individual and group communication.
“Hopefully, once students have a better sense of the way that they communicate, the way that they lead and the way they address conflict, they can use that information going forward when making decisions,” Boness said.
Community service projects included working with local nonprofits such as Books for Keeps, which provides summer reading for underprivileged children; Hands on Athens, which helps low-income Athens-Clarke County homeowners in historic neighborhoods maintain and restore their properties as part of neighborhood revitalization; the Cottage, a sexual assault and children’s advocacy center; and the Northeast Georgia Food Bank. They also work with the UGArden, a student-run garden that provides produce to older adults in the Athens area.
The community service projects enabled the group to apply principles from the leadership curriculum in a real-world setting.
Hannah Turner, a Public Service and Outreach Student Scholar, is working with Boness to measure the effectiveness of community service in reducing recidivism among young first offenders.
“We are measuring how effective community service is as a punishment,” said Turner. “I think there is the potential for community service to be impactful.”
Dale Allen, Athens-Clarke County chief probation officer, said he likes the educational component of the program because it does more than just punish offenders.
“Not only is it just tasking someone to go out and do community service, it is educating them on why they are doing this,” Allen said. “There is some leadership training. There is something besides just a physical task involved.”
A total of 54 young people have participated in YouthServe since it began last year. Of those, 13 completed the program in its first year and 28 completed it this year. That nearly 50 percent increase in the completion rate is attributed to a full cohort being able to start the program this year and attend all five classes.
“We are very proud of its success,” Allen said. “The advantage is that we identify young people early on through the screening process and put them in an environment where they get individual attention. We are seeing a little more maturity coming out on the other end.”
In essays about the program, participants indicated the experience was positive. In one essay, a participant said YouthServe would make them “a better person and a better leader.”
“I have learned so many things and taken so many things from this class,” another participant wrote. “If you were questioning whether or not to continue doing this, I believe that it is very beneficial to the kids who are on probation.”