“We can tell kids ‘no’ until we’re blue in the face,” said Lieutenant Joey Riccelli from the West New York Police Department’s Juvenile Division. “We can tell them, their parents can tell them, what to do and what not to do, but until they have a visual and actually see what could happen if they don’t listen, it usually won’t make a difference.”
Riccelli speaks as a cop, and as a father of two children of his own. He has worked on the town’s force for 27 years, and a year and a half ago, Police Director Michael Indri saw his potential and reassigned the lieutenant to Juvie.
The division has made great strides since then. One of their newest plans is to revamp the “Scared Straight” program that began in 1978 when cops took at-risk kids to East Jersey State Prison in Rahway to show them the consequences of their actions.
Unfortunately back then, the program was more of a scare tactic than the educational, preventative endeavor the department plans to turn it into. Studies showed that without proper “debriefing” afterwards, Riccelli said, it ended up simply scaring them rather than having the intended impact of diverting their path from one heading toward a life of crime.
The program ended in the 1980s.
“I don’t think any Juvie is at the stage where anyone should give up on them.” – Lt. Joey Riccelli
“Joey is one of the greatest things I’ve got going right now,” Indri explained. “With the ‘Get Straight’ program and all of the other changes we’ve implemented, we’re becoming more proactive and trying our best to get to these kids and educate them before they’re lost to a criminal life.”
Logistics of getting kids ‘straight’
Originally, the police had planned to bring kids to Hudson County prison this month. Along with the kids, they planned to take 15 resident juveniles between the ages of 11 and 17 who have gotten into trouble already for breaking curfew, underage drinking, truancy, and the like. But there was far more paperwork than anticipated and the project was delayed.
“We’re hoping to get this together for October,” Indri said. “There is a complex procedural aspect with all of the agencies involved that takes time, but we will get it done as soon as possible.”
“The program stresses education, not intimidation,” Riccelli explained. “The whole purpose is so that they hear the iron doors slamming closed, and see the chains on the inmates rattling, and it makes it real. And we guide them through the process very carefully so they walk away changed rather than just scared.”
Riccelli and his colleagues will take up to 35 juveniles, whose parents sign the appropriate waivers, to Hudson County Jail in the morning. There, they will have a classroom discussion with police and corrections officers. Then they get a tour of the jail itself.
Unlike the discontinued version of the program, they will have lunch together in the employee cafeteria after the tour, and then a debriefing afterwards to help the kids process what they’ve seen and to answer questions.
“This way we show them what it’s like, but we explain what got the inmates there and calm them down so they can learn,” Riccelli explained. “These prisoners didn’t wake up one day and decide, ‘I’m going to go rob someone,’ for instance. We will teach them that there was a progression in their lives similar to the kids’ that got them into prison.”
“One of the busiest divisions in the Police Department is Juvie because a lot of the activity we see is with the younger kids,” Indri explained. “It’s different now than it was when we were 16 and 17 unfortunately, and we need to get to them now before it’s too late.”
The division’s newest preventative tactics include curfew enforcement, which requires that anyone under age 18 unaccompanied by an adult guardian be home by 10 p.m. on weekdays, and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
They’ve also started a gang and a graffiti file, Riccelli said, which allows police to keep track of offenders. This in turn allows them to take disciplinary action before things get out of hand, or to make the appropriate arrests more quickly.
The division has begun to patrol the local parks to make it safer for juveniles and their families to visit them. This has led to many arrests, Indri explained, and has cut down on public drinking or other illegal activity.
And for juveniles who are caught drinking or using drugs, they have a new referral program that points families toward necessary counseling early on before the addiction sets in.
“Many kids grow up in single parent households, or with the economy the way it is both parents hold multiple jobs and work until 10 p.m.,” Riccelli said. “It makes it difficult for them, but I don’t think any Juvie is at the stage where anyone should give up on them. They’re too young, and they deserve the effort, the guidance, and the chance to make a positive change, which is what we are trying to do.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org