By Francisco Alvarado
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By Chris Joseph
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It doesn't look or feel like a correctional facility. There is no security fence, checkpoint, or barbed wire. But there is constant supervision by staff, and just two youths have escaped in the last four years. Unlike that of a prison, the atmosphere between the mostly black and Hispanic residents and the racially mixed staff here is one of trust, respect, and affection.
The state's rising number of commitments and shortage of beds have kept the Last Chance Ranch busy -- too busy. DJJ pays the ranch for 19 kids at any one time, but it often serves 23 with no extra payment. There is a waiting list of three to four months to get in, which means that kids often have to wait in an adult jail or juvenile detention center. And the ranch can now keep a kid in the program for only a year, rather than the previous 18 months, unless it gets special permission from the DJJ. "Time will tell if the shorter stays are working," says Culverhouse, looking skeptical.
The ranch uses a classic reward-punishment regimen to change behavior and attitudes. If residents meet work, classroom, and conduct goals set by themselves and staff, they move into more comfortable quarters and gain privileges, like going on field trips. They're kept busy around the clock with school; tending the vineyards and vegetable gardens; caring for farm animals; learning auto mechanics, carpentry, and food-handling; and undertaking community projects such as maintaining the local cemetery.
Performance expectations are high. One day last month, half a dozen young men returned exhausted from a day in the blazing sun digging holes for 40 fence posts. The crew leader congratulated them on their work. But Crenshaw, a towering black man, met them back at the classroom and chastised them for moving too slowly. "I'm telling you guys, pick up the pace. When you need to be someplace, get up and go." Later he explains: "My thing is teaching kids. They don't get tired of it, either. They're not used to getting much attention, especially from adult men."
The key is gaining a kid's trust and showing him he can be successful at something other than crime and misbehavior, says Culverhouse. Empathy helps, too. "Sometimes a kid acts out, and you think he's just mean," he says. "But you wouldn't believe the reasons." He recalls one kid who had a tantrum over sharing his birthday cake. Culverhouse punished him by making him dig up tree stumps. He later found out that the teenager had never had a birthday party or cake in his entire life. "I felt so bad that from that time on, I ordered one cake for every birthday kid, and a separate cake for everyone else."
Group counseling helps kids gain insight into their angry behavior. After a hard day digging fence post holes, six boys gather in the wood shop for a session led by "Coach" Al Yarborough, who also teaches animal husbandry. The evening's co-leader is Wilson, who guides his fellow residents through a discussion of the "problem of the day." The mood starts out tense. Wilson listens intently as each boy speaks in turn. He's learned exactly when to ask a question and when to call on someone else. The boys bring up conflicts with staff and other residents mainly over little things like chores, lights-out rules, and who tore up whose artwork. These start out as angry diatribes but gradually soften into comic reenactments. Everyone ends up laughing except Coach, who does his best to keep a straight face.
Wilson says that when Judge Schapiro sentenced him to Last Chance Ranch in 1997, he was shocked and angry because it was his first offense, and he thought he should have been sent home on probation. Now his feelings have changed. He looks forward to working every Saturday on Coach's nearby ranch. "Coach is always there for me," Wilson says. He's also discovered new talents, like cooking. He's taking college correspondence courses and hopes to attend the University of Florida, where he'd like to prepare to study medicine or law. "When I get back home, I'm going to thank Judge Schapiro. This wasn't a punishment. It was a blessing."
Supporters of transfer to adult court like Aramony, Broward's chief juvenile prosecutor, argue that the ranch is effective because residents know that they'll be sent to an adult prison if they don't cooperate. The ranch staff and the residents disagree among themselves about this. Crenshaw concurs that he can work better with kids who have the "hammer" of an adult sentence hanging over them. Wilson and other residents admit that their stay in jail before coming to the ranch shook them up. But Culverhouse is skeptical. "Fear isn't the way to motivate them," he says. "Kids change because they want to."
With its small size and staff-to-resident ratio of one to one, the ranch isn't cheap. The cost per kid who completed the program last year was $59,066, according to the state, compared with an average cost of $45,957 for all programs serving comparably serious offenders. But Judge May thinks the ranch is worth the extra cost because it keeps many kids from graduating to a career of crime and saves society the eventual cost of incarcerating them. "We either pay now and pay less, or pay later and pay more," she says.