GREENVILLE COUNTY, SC (WSPA) – While lawmakers in Washington debate criminal justice reform, South Carolina is already trying new approaches in sentencing some of our youngest offenders.
Generations Group Home is a sprawling campus in southern Greenville County.
There are no fences, no gates and the doors are left unlocked.
The campus has all of the trappings of a summer camp or a boarding school, where the staff treat the residents like every boy is a member of the family.
“The more I can understand the way a kid feels, the more I can understand how to help that kid,” David Fields, program director at Generations Group Home, said.
“I want to treat them like my son … because I want the best for my son,” Pat Montgomery, a counselor at the home, said. “It means that I’ll be doing the best for them.”
From all outward appearances, a visitor at Generations Group Home would have no idea who these residents actually are, or that none of them chose to be here.
Every one of the 65 or so boys at Generations was sent there after committing a sex crime.
“We worked with juvenile sex offenders,” Executive Director Brian Clark said. “Anything from hands off type sexual behavior, exposing oneself to molestation and up to rape type offenses.”
They’re often the type of crimes an adult offender would never escape, including punishment in prison and a lifetime as a registered sex offender.
But because these boys range from 12 to 19 years old, the State of South Carolina has taken a starkly different approach.
“When I first came here, I was a little anxious because I didn’t know if they were going to attack me to be honest,” Montgomery said. “But the more you treat a person like they’re family, the more they bond with you.”
Montgomery said she spends a daily eight-hour shift taking a group of about a dozen boys from dorm to class or from therapy to shoot hoops.
“You have to take on that mom and that teacher and that sister role all in one, cause they need all of it,” Montgomery said.
There are a couple of incentives for the state. For one thing, it’s cheaper to send these offenders to Generations than to keep behind bars in Columbia, where each juvenile inmate costs taxpayers about $425 a day.
The state spends about 70 percent less at Generations, and there is some evidence this approach may work better at preventing similar crimes once the residents are released.
“They’re still growing,” Clark said. “Their brains are still developing. We have a wonderful opportunity here to make a difference in their life when it’s more likely to stick.”
The theory is that each juvenile offender is repeating a cycle of behavior. They come in angry and, most of them, have been abused themselves.
Despite the sometimes terrible crimes they’ve committed, the resident inmates are given therapy, and their anger is met with love.
“How many decisions that you made as a 12-year-old do you feel like you should be accountable for for the rest of your life?” Clark said. “If you had an opportunity to address those things, and make changes.”
Generations claims the approach works.
Clark said they have a 98 percent success rate. That number is nearly impossible to independently verify because by law the names of the residents are confidential. But, based on the tracking done here, that 2 percent recidivism rate would be remarkable.
Numbers released by the Department of Juvenile Justice shows juveniles housed behind bar are eight times more likely to re-offend.
“What I’m really trying to work on is being a video game designer,” one juvenile offender said. “Probably going to college.”
So it’s not a summer camp, and nobody would choose to be at Generations. But this unusual approach may mean this is as close to prison as any of these boys ever get.
“I had one (resident) call me and say, ‘I’m in college now,'” Montgomery said. “He’s 21 and I knew him when he was 15, and I’m so proud of him.”