A path to adulthood: DeKalb County Youth Achievement Program

Moderated by Rick Badie

Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government recently recognized DeKalb’s Youth Achievement Program, whose mission is to get at-risk juveniles – namely, those currently or perviously involved with the justice system – on better paths to adulthood. Today, DeKalb’s chief juvenile court judge explains the program and I observe proceedings in her courtroom.

Profanity, respect in juvenile courtroom

By Rick Badie

The 16-year-old entered the courtroom with his head down, wearing a county-issued orange jumpsuit. He’d already been adjudicated on two counts — carrying a concealed weapon and possession of a firearm and weapons. A pending case carried charges of criminal intent and theft by taking.

His probation officer told Chief Judge Desiree Sutton Peagler that he’d show up at school, then simply leave during the course of the day. Since Sept. 15, he’d been truant 29 days.

“As far as school,” the probation officer said, “he’s all over the place.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, the teen’s humility turned to bravado. Disrespect.

“I haven’t even done this (anything),” he said, using profanity. “Y’all keep at me and I haven’t even done this (anything).”

And that’s how the first case of a recent morning began in Sutton Peagler’s courtroom, with a young man’s removal by a deputy.

Juvenile court can be an eye-opener if you’ve never set foot in a proceeding. DeKalb County has four juvenile court judges, including Sutton Peagler. They preside over a myriad of cases that stem from charges as relatively minor as truancy to more serious crimes like simple battery and drug offenses. No day is typical. Nor is the case load.

“It’s difficult to give an average number of cases we hear daily because the numbers vary widely from day to day and from courtroom to courtroom, especially on days when traffic cases and specialty courts such as juvenile drug court and juvenile mental health court are in session,” Sutton Peagler said.

In the hour or so I observed, she handled five cases. (It would have been six, but the parent of one of the juveniles sent word that she’d gone to get breakfast and would return shortly.) A 13-year-old Stone Mountain girl followed the disrespectful teen. Charged with obstruction, her probation officer recommended she undergo anger management counseling and stay in school, which she had been doing religiously as of Nov. 9.

“I am pleased things are going better for you,” Sutton Peagler told the diminutive girl. “If you are delinquent in any way, I am going to have to lock you up. Do you have any questions?”

Girl: “What do you mean by delinquent?”

Sutton Peagler: “Getting in trouble at school is a violation of your probation (order). If you get in trouble at home, that is a violation of your probation. Do you understand?’

Girl: “Yes, ma’am.”

And so it went.

Later that day, I emailed Sutton Peagler about the teen who had used profanity. After his removal, she asked what county he lived in.

“Generally, juveniles who come to court show respect to the judges and other court officials during their hearings, even when they do not agree with the decisions reached in their cases,” she wrote. “The outburst from the young man was not the norm for DeKalb County juveniles. DeKalb kids typically don’t do that.”

He hailed from Atlanta.

 Program creates path to adulthood

By Desiree Sutton Peagler

Georgia’s high school drop-out rates are staggering. With the new formula used to calculate drop-out rates, only 67 percent of our youths graduate from high school in four years. Jails and prisons are populated by individuals who are high school dropouts and unemployed. The National Dropout Prevention Center reports that high school dropouts make up 82 percent of the prison population.

In an effort to stem the flow of high school dropouts and unemployed individuals entering the correctional system, the DeKalb County Juvenile Court began the Youth Achievement Program (YAP) in 2003 with a U.S. Department of Labor grant. The program’s mission is to enable DeKalb youths to access pathways to healthy development that will lead to a strong and responsible adulthood.

YAP’s target population are youth from low-income families ages 16 to 21 who have dropped out, been expelled or withdrawn from school, who are in foster care, and/or who are currently or previously involved with the juvenile or criminal justice system.

The court partners with DeKalb Workforce Development; the DeKalb County School District, Police Department and Board of Health; and Georgia Piedmont College, the DeKalb Initiative for Children and Families, and other community-based agencies. YAP has served over 200 youth; 16 have obtained high school diplomas, 127 received GEDs, 164 completed training certifications, 158 became employed and 46 enrolled in college.

YAP takes a holistic approach to these at-risk young people and is designed to meet the participants where they are. It operates in phases, with youth advancing at their own pace according to the goals that have been set with them in collaboration with their parents/guardians, probation officer (if applicable), case manager and GED teacher. Each youth is paired with a case manager who serves as a mentor and contact point for resources.

In the first phase of the program, young people focus on academic success. They attend classes at the juvenile court four days a week and receive tutoring to assist in the completion of a GED or high school diploma. The second phase of the program focuses on job readiness, career exploration, life skills and activities to promote leadership, self-sufficiency and growth.

The third phase focuses on, but is not limited to, college preparation, college tours, work experience, job shadowing and job placement. When needed, YAP provides tutorials for college entrance exams. The fourth phase of the program includes follow-up services for one year or more to ensure that the youths are making a smooth transition to work, occupational training or college. Case managers work with the youth long-term to ensure that he or she is able to work through challenges that arise.

YAP also provides support services such as MARTA cards, work attire for those entering the workplace, and payment for GED testing at Georgia Piedmont College. The YAP model ensures that upon completion, previously at-risk youth are self-sufficient, responsible, taxpaying citizens in our community.

Desiree Sutton Peagler is chief judge for DeKalb Juvenile Court.

2 comments Add your comment

Retired Vet

November 24th, 2012
12:02 pm

I worked with a partner agency and have first hand experience with this program. The dedication and hard work of the adults who work with these youth are to be commended. They work long hours, travel throughout the county, sometimes on weekends. They make school visits and meet with teachers, principals and guidance counselors. Every summer they match these kids with employers and facilitate the hiring process. I remember seeing TI drop by to do a pep talk, and I was not impressed. The only reason he was there was because he was court ordered as part of his sentence. Where was he prior to being sentenced? The real champions are the dedicated staff, not some celebrity trying to avoid jail by showing up to do a pep talk with an entourage intow. I also met some of the parents of these youth, and the kids were better behaved than the parents. Go figure.


November 23rd, 2012
12:04 am

Three quick observations

First, the fact that approximately 75% of the 200 people involved in the program received some form of High School Diploma is a major milestone. Today obtaining a diploma is the minimum necessary to even have a chance at a successful life.

Secondly, it might be interesting to know how much additional money tax payers are providing beyond what is already spent on the normal education system. While the long term benefits may be worthwhile it still would be interesting to know.

Thirdly, what is the recidivism rate for those 200 individuals? Did most of them turn their lives around or do a large percentage end up back in the system a few years later.

Anyway, regardless it does sound like a worthy program.