- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

DENTON, Texas (AP) - At Denton Independent School District’s Joe Dale Sparks Campus, students study English, math and reading just like kids at the other schools in the district. But there’s one big difference when it comes to the end of the school day. They can’t leave.

The Denton Record-Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2nK0kI3 ) reports the Sparks Campus is just one part of the Denton County Juvenile Probation Department, which works to correct criminal behavior in young people while protecting the public from crime.

At 210 S. Woodrow Lane stands the Charlie J. Cole Building that houses the probation department and County Court at Law 1, serving as the juvenile court. The probation department comprises the detention center, post-adjudication facility and the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP).

A child’s introduction into the juvenile justice system begins when he or she is accused of a crime and brought to the detention facility. Upon intake, the child receives an assessment and parents are contacted immediately. The facility is staffed to house 48 detained juveniles ages 10 to 16.

The facility has all the features of an adult jail with hard floors, tables bolted to the floor and steel doors. Each detained juvenile is given a private, secure room and wears clothes identical to those worn in adult jails.

During the day, juveniles attend class.

“It’s a good, structured environment. Some of our kids really excel here,” said Ken Metcalf, director of Denton County Juvenile Probation. “A lot of times with kids, it takes a little while for them to realize the seriousness of the situation. It’ll be kind of a joke, you know, no big deal. But when they push it far enough to come here, then it’s like, ‘Oh, this is serious.’”

Students also have access to a fully stocked library.

“This is a real public school library. I’m quite proud of it. It has the highest checkout rate of all the Denton ISD libraries,” Metcalf said. “We have a reading population here. You could say it’s a captive audience, but the kids do read.”

Within 24 hours of the first working day after arriving to detention, there’s a detention hearing held in the courtroom. Juveniles also receive a detention hearing every 10 days for as long as they’re locked up.

Juvenile Court Judge Kimberly McCary presides over these hearings.

“My goal is to make sure that when that child is released, the public is safe and that there’s something different in place to make sure whatever brought that young person to detention doesn’t repeat itself,” McCary said.

About 60 percent of kids who find themselves at the detention center never come back, Metcalf said. But although the majority seem to learn their lesson, McCary is not satisfied with the recidivism rate.

“But what about those 40 percent? I don’t want them there twice,” McCary said. “To me that’s even too high. I want to reduce our recidivism even more.”

On a recent day, the courtroom was packed with parents waiting for their kid’s case to be called. One by one, children as young as 10 dressed in navy blue jail pants, an oversized tan shirt and orange rubber slippers approached the bench flanked by a prosecutor on one side, a defense attorney and their parents on the other.

McCary weighs several factors, including the child’s level of supervision at home and likelihood the kid will show up to court, when deciding whether to release the offender to his or her parents. Bonds are not required in the juvenile system.

Much of the terminology is different in the juvenile justice system from the adult system. The kids sleep in rooms, not cells. At trial, they are found true, not guilty, and the child has been adjudicated, not convicted.

“They’re trying to unlabel the children, take the taint away with those criminal tags,” JJAEP supervisor Jennifer Gigl said.

JJAEP is separate from detention. It’s where students go after they’ve been expelled from any of the 13 school districts in the county. It also can be part of a student’s sentence.

“The goal is that they finish their days here and they successfully transition back to their home campus, and that will be the only time they come into the juvenile system. That’s the ultimate goal,” Gigl said.

JJAEP is a military-style school where students wear uniforms, earn rank, practice drill and participate in physical training in addition to school work. The students do not live there, but the school day is slightly longer, running from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“The kids who come here, they don’t just come and earn their day. They actually have to work to earn their day and be successful to exit here,” Gigl said.

The Lewisville ISD provides teachers and curriculum for JJAEP and four drill instructors on staff provide the discipline.

Post adjudication is a long-term, residential, lockdown facility for offenders who have been adjudicated or found true. The system provides counseling, therapy and education locally. Without the facility, many more of those found true would be sent off to serve their sentences.

“It’s a good benefit for the parents in the county because they can work with the caseworkers, the therapists and the counselors on issues with their kids,” Metcalf said. “Rather than sending them farther away, it’s a better fit for the family.”

Juveniles in post adjudication serve 6- to 12-month sentences. Many of them have already been released and failed to comply with the probation requirements.

“If the orders of the court are not being upheld, then the judge will look at placement options, post adjudication being one of them,” Metcalf said. “The entire focus of that program is to teach good citizenship and get that child back into their home.”

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Information from: Denton Record-Chronicle, https://www.dentonrc.com

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