Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Last Chance in Texas, John Hubner

What happens when you take a state like Texas with one of the most brutal sentencing judicial systems in the country and match it up with the most progressive treatment programs for the most serious of teenage offenders? What happens when you take kids who have done horrendous things, the sorts of thing that people are never forgiven for (rape, torture, murder), and give them a true second chance? When you do these things you have arrived at the Giddings State School: the punitive holding place for the worst of the worst of Texas juvenile offenders. You combine kids from all types of vicious gangs and abusive backgrounds and give them such intense discipline that most of them understand quite clearly that if they don't obey and try to improve on themselves within these helpful, encouraging yet tough walls, they will go to prison for the entirety of their sentences. As adults. Which means they are more ruined for a future than they already were.

And so we have it. The author spends some intense time at Giddings, following along with a male and female group of kids going through the school's "Capitol Offenders Program" which takes the worst of the worst of the worst at Giddings and puts them through progressive yet very intensive therapy that involves going through their painful lives and confronting their terrible crimes. They have to learn tom come face-to-face with made them who they are today, learn how to fix their thinking, forgive themselves, understand their role as victim in their lives but then to face their crime, to feel the pain they inflicted upon others and come to grips with the fact that they have no excuses for what they did, they must take full responsbility for their actions, no matter how vicitmized they were as children.

The book is tragic and educational. It is disappointing and so hopeful. Even when you reach the epilogue and you learn where all these kids are today and you see that most of them will never end up where they hope to be; the point is that they are trying. They are making conscious efforts and decisions to avoid falling into old ways of thinking and behaving. And that is where the hope comes in.

The recidivism rates at Giddings are ridiculously low. Crazy low. So low that it makes us wonder why other juvy systems in the country aren't following their example. Part of the problem is cost. It is expensive to offer these types of programs with the sorts of trained and understanding, yet tough, individuals that run them. The other part of the problem is that it's always easier to put these kids away, labelling them as hopelessly criminal without a chance to truly change. It's easier to give in to fear than it is to think they might have a way of mending themselves and, in turn, mending our society.

So readable, so accessible, Hubner writes in a manner that makes you feel like you are with him behind the one-way mirror watching and listening as these kids go through the biggest struggle of their lives: confronting their real selves. I have a few complaints about the structure of the book: what went where and why -- and also the too-brief time spent with the girls' group. But even more important is that we need to read this book and champion ways of bringing this light and hope to as many of these hopeless juvy cases as we possibly can. Otherwise, what hope is there that things will continue to get better?

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