Busy Hands 

Neighborhood Alliance puts juvenile offenders to work.

The old saying "Idle hands are the devil's playground" might have some truth to it.

Studies have shown the probability that someone will commit a crime increases when that person has nothing productive to do, and that's especially true for youth, according to Richard Janikowski, a criminology professor at the University of Memphis.

But a new program, sponsored by the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center's Neighborhood Alliance, will give trouble-making teens an outlet for those idle hands by allowing them to perform court-ordered community service in and around their own neighborhoods.

In 2010, around 11,000 juveniles were processed through the Shelby County Juvenile Court, and more than 300 were ordered to perform community service, according to Jennifer McKissick, community service coordinator for the Shelby County Juvenile Court.

The court is partnering with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center on the new program, which targets offenders ages 13 to 17. As part of the center's Neighborhood Alliance, which encourages neighborhood leaders to work together on common problems, kids in the program will have the opportunity to fulfill their service hours by volunteering with their own neighborhood associations or community organizations.

Participating groups include the South Memphis Farmers Market and the Urban Farms Market, as well as the Glenview, Rozelle-Annesdale, Speedway Terrace, and Normal Station neighborhood associations.

"This is not a free labor program for somebody who wants to get their yard cut or somebody who wants to get their chores done," said Brad Watkins, organizing director for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center. "We want to partner with community organizations in [the juveniles'] neighborhoods and get these kids connected to something positive they can plug into."

McKissick said teens are normally assigned community service for misdemeanor offenses, such as curfew violations, property theft, vandalism, and simple assault.

The court system typically places them within their own zip code to carry out service hours at churches, schools, and community service centers. On average, a juvenile receives 24 hours of service, which they normally have a month to complete.

"We try to give children an opportunity to remain in their community, do something productive and restorative, and try to stay out of trouble," McKissick said.

Watkins said although the court places juveniles within their zip code, they're not always doing service in their own neighborhoods.

"The major difference is we are recruiting groups willing to do more longer-term and community-based engagement with these children," Watkins said. "Not simply cleaning up community centers or doing projects in the short term."

The program was created after the Neighborhood Alliance's majority, which consists of representatives and community activists from more than 13 neighborhoods, listed one of their top four priorities as youth engagement in meetings last spring. The program will soon be receiving referrals from Juvenile Court.

Watkins said the program has the potential to make a difference in teen lives, future crime rates, and incarceration costs.

"We have a chance, as a community, to make peoples' lives better," Watkins said. "A lot of these kids really need a support structure. They need to have a connection to their community and not have the community view them as a menace. Instead, look at them as young people in the community who can contribute positively to it if given the right opportunity."

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