Independent Living Programs for Juvenile Offenders

Road to Independence

Independent Living Programs for Juvenile Offenders

Juvenile crime is a major problem in contemporary America. Murder, rape, assault, and crimes against property are a part of everyday life for many teens. Incarceration can both punish and reeducate. The offender learns that antisocial behaviors have consequences. He also learns that there are other ways to deal with his problems, and other ways to make a living. Such attempts at reform are all well and good within the closed world of the juvenile detention center or the sheriff’s boot camp, but the day must come when these youths are returned to society. Reintegration into the outside world can be both good and bad for the juvenile offender. For those who return to loving homes, the process can represent the completion of the reform process. However, many teens have no loving homes to which they can go, no caring parents or guardians who will ensure that they stay on the right path. In fact, many youthful offenders come from home environments that only aggravate what is an already bad situation.

Violence, drug use, and other forms of abuse destroy family life and sabotage the teen’s attempts at recovery. For many, there is only one option – independent living.

Independent living programs allow juvenile offenders to progress toward adulthood while receiving the assistance and counseling they so desperately need. While the Federal Independent Living Program provides only for an initial life-skills assessment, many states offer a wide range of helpful services. (HomeBase 2001) These services can include help with life-skills, social and psychological problems, and even simple, general education. (HomeBase 2001) In fact, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice offers the following as a list of desirable goals in its Independent Living Program:

Juveniles will make successful transitions into adulthood

Juveniles will acquire various life management, educational, vocational, and social skills

Juveniles will avoid activities that may lead to reoffending

Reduce recidivism and further incidents of delinquency (FDJJ 2002)

In short, the State of Florida’s program, like those of other states, is geared toward creating a fully-functioning, and socially responsible adult. It addresses in particular, recidivism and the issues that lead to it. As criminal activity is precisely the problem that brought the youth to the attention of the authorities, it is essential that such deviant behavior be corrected, and replaced with more constructive actions and ways of thinking.

Life skills are among the most necessary assets for success. An independent living program in the State of Rhode Island provides one hundred hours of instruction for eligible teens. Attendees receive not only training in career planning, but also advice on how to manage one’s life as an independent adult. Teens aged sixteen and up learn how to manage a household, live on a budget, cook, clean, and handle the various tasks of everyday life. Students take trips and meet with outside experts. Enrollment in any given program is based on a careful preliminary evaluation of each applicant’s own needs. A $200 stipend is even given out upon completion of the program. (DCYF 2002) In contrast to the Rhode Island program – which does not actually provide housing – the State of Virginia has a system of halfway houses that are intended to meet similar aims. These halfway houses, with a total of forty-four beds, serve three classes of juvenile offender. The first consists of teens with no place to go once they are released from correctional facilities. The second, of teens who will actually be completely on their own after their sentences are complete. And third, youths who would be adversely affected by an immediate return to the family household. (VA 2001) Again, this third category of children destined for independent living programs speaks to the problem of dysfunctional family environments

Indeed, the express purpose of all juvenile independent living programs is the avoidance of a negative external situation. Whatever the offender’s problems, they will be exacerbated by re-exposure to the conditions that caused them. Physical violence, sexual abuse, drugs – all play a part in making it difficult for juveniles to make the transition to adult life. Often parents are guardians are bad influences, as are former friends and associates. The independent living program permits the teen to live in a “safe,” and controlled environment. Even if he or she is living alone in an apartment, it will be in a situation where the juvenile is not immediately exposed to the old dangers.

Of course, as shown in the Virginia system, it is not always practical for youthful offenders to live without supervision. The halfway house affords the opportunity for even closer supervision while at the same time being neither as rigidly controlled as the correctional environment, nor as free as the situation that would exist were the child to be out on his own.

A critical element in reforming delinquent youths, and one generally overlooked in practice, is education. For most juvenile offenders, education effectively stops once the child is first incarcerated. (Buzbee) While many institutions claim to educate their inmates, few actually provide any worthwhile schooling. This only adds an additional strike against the criminal teen. From the moment he is sentenced, he is either doomed to a life of dead-end jobs and the minimum wage, or he is pushed back into a life of crime. One program, however, that aims to reverse this tendency, is Maryland’s Fresh Start initiative. Run by the Living Classrooms Foundation since its inception in 1989, Fresh Start serves a mixed population of imprisoned youth, and youth residing in residential facilities and halfway houses. It’s approach to learning and correction is unusual. Rather than replacing the teens’ freedoms with a wholly regimented prison lifestyle, the program instead gives youths responsibility for their own actions. A juvenile’s success at Fresh Start is based solely on his own and resolve and upon his willingness to voluntarily adhere to the initiative’s guidelines.

Because Fresh Start is voluntary and uses no locks or restraints, the program operates with a strict behavioral code: youth who commit or threaten violence, and those found with or under the influence of drugs, are automatically expelled. Also, youth are allowed three personal days during each eight-week cycle. Absence counts as one personal day, and any lateness counts for half a day. If they exceed the three-day limit, youth are removed from the program and must apply for re-admission. As a result, Fresh Start has a daily attendance rate of more than 90%.

Although Fresh Start participants spend only 75 minutes per day in a classroom, most make substantial academic progress thanks to the program’s extensive hands-on learning activities. Youth gain an average of 1.85 grades in reading, 1.0 grades in writing, and.65 grades in math. Of those who enter the program at an 8th grade level or higher, [and] 77% earn their GEDs. dollars during the program through work with student-run businesses to build and sell boats and patio furniture. Youth typically earn $500 to $800 over the course of the program, although they can claim these rewards only if they graduate the program.”


Hands-on activities transform education from something theoretical into something practical. Youths who previously saw no use for schooling discover that they have skills and interests they never knew existed.

In a similar vein, a Texas-based program operated by the Gulf Coast Trades Center, provides juvenile offenders with real-world experience together with a real-world sense of accomplishment. 144 youths are housed in unlocked dormitories in an unfenced facility. The youths are a reflection of the local population, White, African-American, and Hispanic. As in the Maryland program, students spend a small portion of each day on academic subjects. But even more importantly, Gulf Coast offers nine different vocational tracks, each with its own instructor and facilities. Each vocational training program is a full and intensive course consisting of 915 hours of both in-class and hands-on instruction. Youths must demonstrate a thorough mastery of several dozen competencies in order to earn their vocational certificates, a feat accomplished by more than 80% program participants. (Buzbee) Even more incredibly, many students take part in Gulf Coast’s YouthBuild Program, an initiative funded with federal dollars. In what is a wonderful experience in community involvement students actually build and sell homes on the local market. (Buzbee) At facilities like Fresh Start and Gulf Coast, business acumen is combined with academics, and personal responsibility.

Thus, Independent Living programs like those in Texas, Maryland, Florida, Virginia, and other states, provide a unique and exciting alternative to traditional methods of dealing with delinquent youth. The independent living arrangements, whether in apartments, or residential facilities, or halfway houses, offer juveniles an escape from the problems of home and at the same time, a very real sense of personal responsibility. Education programs with a heavy dose of the hands-on, combined with real world work experience, and business projects, stimulate minds that would otherwise be concentrating on less socially desirable ends. Through Independent Living, youths learn that life is not all bad, and that by hard work and study, one can truly make one’s way in the world.


Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. (2002). Intervention Program Models. Intervention Services Manual. URL:

2. HomeBase. (March 23, 2001). Homeless Youth and the Connection to Foster Care.

Homeless Youth. URL:

3. Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families. (2002). Life Skills program. Independent Living Program. URL:

Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. (2001). Structure and Function of the Juvenile Justice System, Chapter 1. URL:

5. Buzbee, Thomas M. (No Date). Provide Quality Education and Career Development Services. 3-5.

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