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Trying for a Clean Break : Persuading chronic offenders to give up drugs, gangs is aim of Juvenile Hall program, which has had mixed results.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of Chuck’s closest friends was strangled in a gang fight.

Two more of the 18-year-old’s friends were poisoned with cyanide-laced speed. Another was shot and killed by a rival gang member. A fifth died of a drug overdose. And one died in a drunk-driving accident.

But Chuck seemingly missed all those warnings.

While living out his teen years in Orange and Los Angeles counties, he threatened to kill others, took stolen cars on joy rides, and roamed the streets looking for enough speed to keep him awake for a week at a time. He dealt drugs and “was fascinated” when the people he had bilked of drug money hunted him.

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But when Chuck was arrested about a year ago for the sixth time since the age of 14--this time on an extortion charge--he broke down crying in front of authorities. The multiple felon had finally touched bottom.

Chuck’s collapse was exactly what Norman Shattuck, 54, was waiting for.

Shattuck, assistant director at Juvenile Hall, placed the burned-out teen-ager in the Breakthrough drug treatment program. There he joined 21 other teens of both sexes whose lives ran on the fuel of drugs and crime.

Now, with more than 11 months under his belt, Chuck is the senior member of Breakthrough, the only program operated inside the walls of Juvenile Hall that is designed to separate the county’s hard-core drug addicts from their criminal habits.

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“This program has saved my life,” said Chuck, whose real name is not being published because he is in the custody of juvenile authorities.

Orange County probation officials say they need this program to succeed because more than half of the county’s juvenile crimes have been traced to a small number of chronic offenders--most of them in gangs or drug users.

Specifically, the numbers show that 8% of youths who enter the Orange County juvenile justice system account for 55% of the crimes committed, Shattuck said. Breakthrough is tailored to that unfortunate 8%.

Started with a $248,000 federal grant in 1992, the program singles out a small number of incarcerated youths. Those who have been admitted into the program have an average age of about 17 and have been arrested an average of about five times.

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Once inside the program, the offenders are separated from the rest of the Juvenile Hall population and put into a special wing where their lives are regimented, monitored and kept free of drugs and gang rivals.

“It’s different than anything that has been done before,” said Shattuck, who has worked in the county Probation Department since 1964. “It is not the solution to everything, but it sure is helping a lot of kids.”

Success has been mixed. Since the program’s first day of operation 17 months ago, 75 youths have been placed in Breakthrough and 45 have “graduated.” Of the graduates, though, about 30 have subsequently lapsed back into drug and alcohol use or were arrested again.

Those results, which Shattuck said are “a little disappointing,” illustrate the difficulty of getting these teen-agers to free themselves from the two things--drugs and gangs--that have become obsessions in their lives.

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The teen-agers most likely to graduate are generally those whose lives have bottomed out.

“If the kid does not want to try,” Shattuck said, “then we can’t do diddly for them.”

The program will only take those who are serving at least a 140-day sentence because any less time in the regimented confines of Breakthrough is simply not enough to make a difference. Marla Hamblin, a public defender, has even agreed to a lengthier sentence for some of her youthful clients so that they can get help.

“It is intense,” Hamblin said. “They can accomplish some of the same results in four or five months that most drug treatment programs take a year to do.”

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Those who have been through Breakthrough say it is no country club. Because it is drug free, there is a long list of rules and everybody has to attend school every day--except Saturday and Sunday.

“The emphasis in this program is on education,” Chuck said. “It is the key to everything.”

Some have entered the program unable to recite the alphabet, but have left with the ability to read. Chuck and 19 others have earned their General Equivalency Degrees and six more are now attending college.

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The world of Breakthrough is a sparse and sober existence: a common living area with a weight machine, books, couches and decorated walls. A community bathroom is next door. And a narrow concrete hallway lined with heavy doors leads to tiny cells, one for each person.

The alarm is set for 6 a.m., and everyone eats breakfast half an hour later. Classes start promptly at 7:50. After four hours of school and then lunch, afternoons feature “encounter sessions” in which the teen-agers seek to confront painful problems head on.

The sessions amount to a series of emotional and confrontational exchanges among participants about common troubles, such as addiction, anger, guilt, deceased friends, pregnant girlfriends and abusive parents. The aim is to help youths confront their greatest obstacle to recovery: themselves.

The payoff is a new lifestyle marked by sobriety, honesty and responsibility.

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“Our counselors are really” confrontational, Chuck said. “They strip off all the armor that you have built up from years of drug use. You are naked.”

Relationships between the youths and their counselors generally begin with manipulation and distrust, but develop into a tighter bond.

There is some leisure time left over for reading, lifting weights, and to use pay phones to make collect calls. But at 9 p.m., it’s doors locked, lights out, eyes closed.

In his first nights there, Chuck slept on the floor of his cell so that he could not fall out of bed when the speed withdrawals hit him with a sudden force. But during his yearlong stay, Chuck has undergone a physical and mental metamorphosis.

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“When I got here, I was like a skeleton,” he said. “I would look in the mirror and say, ‘Is that me?’ ”

While he lived on speed, the tall, blond youth wanted it more than food. But once inside the program, he gained 40 pounds from eating three meals a day. Chuck is now two months from release.

But for every person like Chuck in the program, there is an anti-Chuck, the one who is jerked off the street while committed to gangs and drugs, and sees little reason to change.

These teens consider gangs glorious and drugs wonderful. With so many hours spent in various drug treatment programs, they “speak the lingo” that counselors want to hear, as if by rote, and are uninterested in snapping out of it.

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“About half of us make it, and about half don’t,” Chuck said. “I have been using drugs since I was 13. You cannot turn that around in 90 days.”

As hard as it is inside, the real test comes when youths work back toward their freedom on the outside. Often, Shattuck says, minors become increasingly terrified as their release date nears. For a person who was raised in a violent home in a crime-ridden neighborhood, being sent back is like being “sent to hell,” Shattuck said.

For that reason, the eight-person staff helps them find mentors and jobs, and will even buy them monthly bus passes once they get out so that they can attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Mark Miller, assessment counselor who places youths in the program, said that a lack of support after release can undo months of treatment.

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“That is always the Achilles’ heel of the system,” Miller said. “One thing about drug addict behavior is that they are used to taking shortcuts. We (get) them off drugs and dealing with their behavior only to send them back.”

In the end, though, it is up to each youth to keep clean.

Chuck plans to move in with his volunteer mentor because his mother and two older brothers have never forgiven him for all the pain he has caused. He plans to take classes at a local college to become an emergency paramedic and write short stories.

But more important, Chuck has cut his gang affiliations. He has let it be known among the homeboys in his street gang that he was banished to the California Youth Authority to serve a seven-year sentence.

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“You have to sever all ties,” he said. “They think I am gone.”

And in a way, he is.

Persuading chronic offenders to give up drugs, gangs is aim of Juvenile Hall program, which has had mixed results.


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