WATER VALLEY – Youthful offenders in Yalobusha County are getting one last chance under a new program that just moved into recently renovated quarters downtown.
The Adolescent Offender Program (AOP), located at 419 Railroad Avenue, is one of eight operated by the non-profit Recruitment and Training Program of Mississippi, Inc. of Columbus.
Among the aims is to decrease criminal activity, improve school attendance and performance, and inspire adolescents to be more positive, goal-oriented individuals, according to the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
“Our program is the last step between a juvenile and training school,” said Melody Campbell, case manager for the local AOP. “If the judge didn’t order them to us, they would be ordered to training school. The program is their probation.”
Currently the yearlong program serves nine at-risk youth and Campbell expects to have six more enrolled by June 30. Participants range in age from 12 to 17.
During the first of three phases, the youths have to attend four, two-hour sessions after school each week. “They also have an 8 p.m. curfew and they can’t have any other encounters with law enforcement,” Campbell said.
“We try to address things that we see the kids are dealing with. A lot of the kids we get are angry. During the teen-age years some kids are just finding their way in the world. They don’t know why they are angry, they are just mad. We try to work through that in counseling,” Campbell continued.
“After the first six months they can move up to phase two which lasts three months,” she said. During the second phase, participants only have to come two days a week, but they have to meet all the other guidelines.
Program participants must maintain a B average in their schoolwork and they are subject to random drug testing.
“In phase three they don’t have to come to regular sessions,” she added, but emphasized that program administrators continue to monitor the youth’s progress.
If the young offender violates the terms of their probation, they are removed from the program and can be ordered into state custody. “If you go to training school, when you get out you go through AOP all over again,” Campbell said, “Training school is teenager’s jail. You’re told when to go to bed and when to get up. When you’re a teenager, that’s worse than Parchman.”
According to figures from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, keeping young offenders in the AOP program instead of placing them in training schools has saved taxpayers in excess of $346 million over the past five years.
In the long run, there is more to be saved than just money. The abilities of these young people shouldn’t be underestimated, Campbell said. “Most of these kids are as smart as anybody you’ll find in school. They just need to be directed. They need an outlet. We try to instill in them some hope.”