POWHATAN – The Powhatan County First Time Offender and Community Service Program isn’t a free ride, but it is a chance to turn a youth’s life around.
Aimed at 14- to 17-year-olds who have been found guilty of a nonviolent crime, the program provides a “careful balance between mentorship and accountability,” said Gretchen Brown, senior assistant commonwealth’s attorney and the program’s new supervisor.
Students who have been found guilty of a crime in the Powhatan Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court receive community service, the First Time Offender program, or both. What follows is 36 hours of classroom work and an average of 50 to 100 hours all aimed at helping young men and women who made a poor choice take responsibility and, hopefully, undergo a big change in outlook.
Does it work? They’ll stand by the program’s record. In the almost two years Brad Luxford has been the county’s community juvenile officer, 41 youth have gone through the program. In that time, there was zero recidivism. And before that, Lucky Hill filled the role, making a lasting impression on many local youth.
“The kids who have been through the program, none of them have received additional charges. They are staying out of trouble,” Brown said.
Before going to work in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, Brown spent many years working as a defense attorney and handled numerous cases where the program afforded a youth the opportunity to learn something from a mistake instead of just being punished for it.
She saw the value of the program then, and she stands by it even more as a prosecutor, which is why she unexpectedly took on the role of supervisor at the beginning of March.
Luxford, a former Powhatan deputy, has been operating the program under the umbrella of the Powhatan Department of Social Services, which originally took the program under its wing in July 2014.
But after undergoing a state audit, the local social services office found out about a month ago that the program couldn’t remain under its purview. Refusing to see the program disappear or youth referred to an online course, Brown volunteered to become the supervisor and the local commonwealth’s attorney’s office agreed to oversee it.
“Online classes would not be an effective substitute for the hands-on program. Putting kids in front of screens for more screen time is not a way to teach them empathy and human values,” she said.
During the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors’ March 9 budget workshop, Richard “Dickie” Cox, commonwealth’s attorney, spoke about the importance of the program. He praised Luxford’s work in the program and asked for an additional $8,084 to raise Brown’s salary to compensate her for taking on the supervisor role.
“I can tell you the failure to sustain this program would be catastrophic for kids that have made a mistake and need a little guidance. You know what kind of kids a vast majority of these are – they just need a little guidance to get them on the right track,” Cox told the board.
The main thing to understand about the young people referred to the program is that the great majority of them are not criminals, Luxford said. Yes, they have been found guilty of crimes such as larceny, drug-related offenses, trespassing, and minor assault, but it is often “a teenager lashing or acting out motivating their actions.”
“Most people can remember their teen years. Hormones raging, the part of your brain telling you to take risks developing before the part of your brain that analyzes risks and tells you it isn’t worth it,” he said. “These are young people who have potential, that have made mistakes, are immature, struggling and need reigned in. They are good at heart once you get past the sometimes bad attitude. They are salvageable.”
The First Time Offender program lasts six months, with youth attending three-hour classes two Saturdays a month with others in the program. Luxford utilizes curriculum using the “Six Pillars of Character,” “The Power of Choice,” and “Cage the Rage” programs. He also uses teaching aids such as Admiral (U.S. Navy Retired) W. H. McRaven’s “Make Your Bed: Little things that can change your life…and maybe the world,” “Making Ethical Decisions,” by Michael Josephson, and various TED Talk videos. He always has roundtable discussions, and at the recommendation of one of the youths, he started incorporating Kahoot! quizzes into the curriculum, which they found engaging.
“Students learn about character and ethics. They learn about ADHD, anger, interpersonal skills, being part of a team, and, hopefully, a lot about themselves. The program is about social and interpersonal relationships and about building confidence and self-worth. It is about taking responsibility for their actions and their future,” he said.
Luxford also oversees youth who have been assigned community service by the court. He helps them find a government or nonprofit organization to serve their allotted hours and reviews and checks their time.
Any government or nonprofit organization can adopt a youth for service if they provide adult supervision with Luxford’s approval, and the program needs more partners to agree to participate, he said. The community service hopefully opens the youths’ eyes to the concept of serving someone other than themselves and puts them in healthy environment with good adult mentors.
“The program needs more organizations to step up and provide places where these young people can put in their time. The vast majority of the young people are good workers and polite. They know the placement is doing them a big favor and don’t want to mess it up for themselves or the people coming after them,” Luxford said. “They also have to worry about the (community juvenile officer). There is zero tolerance for poor treatment of placement organizations, and offending youth will have more community service time to do and/or will be going back to court.”
All participants are randomly drug tested, and testing positive will also get them kicked out of the program and sent back to court, he said.
“It is not a free ride. I don’t want people thinking it is a picnic. The kids don’t really enjoy being there,” he said.
Nonprofits interested in taking on youth for community service hours may contact Brown at 804-598-5668.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.