Five years ago, I found myself in a youth incarceration facility with a group of 14-to-18-year-old inmates. I had come to visit Camp Gonzales, one of Los Angeles’ 19 youth detention facilities, at the request of two passionate juvenile justice advocates, Carol Biondi and Jo Kaplan.

I posed a simple ice-breaker question to the boys: What did they like to do when not “locked up”? They offered a range of answers, and then one asked how I liked to spend my nonworking hours. My top two: “Basketball and poetry.” Just as I was leaving the camp, I felt something being slipped into my back pocket — a piece of folded notepaper. A tall, tough-looking kid whispered in my ear, “I like to write poetry too.”

Shortly afterward, our nonprofit educational organization, the New Visions Foundation, implemented a program at Camp Gonzales, offering after-school enrichment: arts classes, post-camp placement services and much more. Across the board, the results, as well as the deepening of our understanding of probation issues, have been tremendous.

During these past five years I have learned a great deal. In fact, I believe that the Los Angeles County Department of Probation has also made discoveries. Consequently, holding my breath somewhat, I am optimistic that in the coming years we can make some real progress in the juvenile justice system. Under the leadership of the new head of probation, Robert Taylor, there is a new spirit of change.

The national problem continues to be that we are very good at sending youth or adult lawbreakers off to camps or prison, but as a society we are atrocious at improving their attitudes, skills and chances for success once they are released. They serve their time and are let out, and the great majority will return to camps or prison, usually within six months of their release.

In 2007, approximately 700,000 adult prisoners will be released back into society. In fact, 93% of all prison inmates are eventually released, and according to Joan Petersilia, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, “about three-quarters of them have a history of substance abuse and one in six suffers from mental illness.” Yet while in prison, less than one-third of them receive treatment for their drug abuse or mental health issues. Given the prison conditions and connections formed or solidified there, most return to society a little less able to cope.

In the youth camps, 100 percent are eventually released. Yet in the past the same inattention to connections and to careful planning for re-entry has prevailed. There has been a notable lack of comprehensive rehabilitative progress. So when New Visions received a five-year grant, we resolved to attend to three areas: assessment, in-camp enrichment education, and post-camp placement. We have four full-time employees who assess each boy’s needs and then design a program to build on the boys’ positive interests — like poetry, for example. From 3 to 5 p.m. each day we offer enrichment courses, which follow the classes required by the Los Angeles County of Education. Our classes include music, filmmaking (complete with screening events, including one at Sony), drama, writing and performing their own scenes, gardening, computers, journalism (the boys publish a monthly newsletter), life skills, GED preparation and the like. And as for post-institution placement, our director, Fernando Rodriquez, and his three co-workers have put more than 80 students in community colleges, and five have attended private high school schools. One is currently at New Roads School in Santa Monica, Calif., and two are attending Eagle Rock School, a “tough love” boarding school in Colorado. Others have received apprenticeships and jobs through the L.A. Job Corps. Many of the stories of how these boys have turned their lives around would bring tears to the reader’s eyes. I should add, sadly, that four of our “graduates” were shot to death by rival gangs before we could place them.

What I have learned in the past five years and what I believe the L.A. Probation Department has come to see is that rehabilitation works — if done properly and comprehensively. Many of the boys and girls in the camps (two camps are all-girls) have rarely or never made positive connections. The New Visions program provides close and long-lasting connections to our youths. John Hubner, in his study of the redemption of criminal youths, “Last Chance in Texas,” writes:

“Next to the need to survive, a human being needs to form connections. If no loving figure is found, he will bond with his abuser and seek power, control, and recognition in ways he learns from his oppressor. Healthy human beings also seek power, control and recognition. The difference is, being loved and nurtured and in turn being able to love sends those forces in directions that build families and community and careers that contribute to the greater good.”

The choice is critical. We know that purely punitive measures don’t work — our recidivism rates prove this. Proper rehabilitation can and sometimes does work, and is in everyone’s best interests. Writing poetry, I suspect, is better than drugs, robbery and murder.

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