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A one-year-old Fairfax County juvenile diversion program called TAP, aimed at educating at-risk youth about the unpleasant realities of prison life, seems to be achieving some anecdotal success and is planning to expand.

“At-risk kids are able to see and hear first-hand the effects of making a right decision versus a wrong decision,” says Deputy Sheriff Lieutenant Steve Elbert, about the tours and presentations he leads at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. The Sheriff’s Office initiated the TAP (Teen Awareness Program) a year ago, in partnership with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, to become part of the court’s diversion program for first-time, non-violent juvenile offenders.

Diversion is the informal process of handling of cases by the Juvenile Court Services Unit of Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. It is only available for first-time youth offenders who admit guilt of appropriate offenses. The benefit of a diversion is that there is no formal charge and cases are closed within a specified timeframe provided that the juvenile is compliant with their diversion program. Juveniles who are non-compliant may be formally charged and required to appear before a judge for trial.

In the TAP program, juveniles are introduced to shackled inmates who can be simultaneously intimidating and educational in describing their poor life choices. Tours are scheduled 5-10 times per year, during summer and other school breaks.

The Sheriff’s Office limits each tour to 15 teenagers and strongly recommends to the court that a parent accompany each teen.

“The program is a lot like the well-known ‘Scared Straight’ initiative, but instead of scaring them, we are educating them,” said Elbert.

According to a 2011 study performed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the Juvenile Court Services Unit of Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court processed 5,686 delinquency and status complaints, or 8.7 percent of the total processed in the state. Twenty-three percent of those complaints were resolved or diverted at the intake level. Felony offenses accounted for 18 percent of the complaints, class 1 misdemeanors for 37 percent, status offenses for 9 percent and technical violations for 15 percent. The average active monthly juvenile probation caseload in the county is more than 600 youths.

“When parents share the TAP experience with their teenager they have something to discuss on the ride home from the jail,” Elbert said. “If the parents see new signs of poor decision-making weeks or months later, they can return to the same discussion.”

The TAP tour starts with a presentation about the demographics of the jail population, the range of criminal charges, different levels of security, the role of a deputy sheriff, and the daily schedule for inmates.

After the introduction, Elbert takes the group on a tour through the intake process, the crowded holding cells and the different housing areas. The emphasis is on the lack of privacy, loss of freedom and privileges, and the monotony of daily life.

Following the tour, Elbert and a pre-selected inmate talk about their parallel situations, the choices each has made, and the radically different outcomes.

“Early in high school, I occasionally ran with some bad crowds,” says Elbert. “Twice I found myself in a situation where I could have committed a felony with my friends or walk away. Both times I made the right decision. Today, I am a law enforcement officer because of my choices. Often a participating inmate will relate how he was faced with similar choices and chose the path that led to where he is now.”

After the tour, teens have the opportunity to direct their questions to the inmates.

According to Elbert, the most frequently asked questions concern whether the inmate can contact family and friends, and how often he can have visitors. “Parents often ask the inmate if his path to jail was related to, or influenced by, the use of illegal drugs,” he said.

Colleen Cramer, a hearing officer in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, said she was impressed after accompanying Elbert on the first tour. “His tone of professionalism and respect and recognition of the fact that many inmates are good people who make poor choices help our diversion program participants realize that someday it may be just one decision separating them from the people they will be seeing behind bars,” Cramer said.

According to Cramer, one mother wrote her that on their way home from the tour, her son said he would not have done what he did had he seen the jail beforehand. “The Sheriff’s Office should continue to provide young adults with this wake-up call,” the parent wrote.

Elbert said the Sheriff’s Office is now preparing to expand the program to include referrals of suspected at-risk kids from local public schools by School Resource Officers.

The SROs are assigned to middle and high schools throughout the county during the school year, with the goal of creating and maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment for students, teachers and staff.

“We would provide a separate tour for the kids referred by the SROs, Elbert said.

“The idea there is to educate them before they get into trouble, as opposed to after.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com