After Doing Time, Teens Serve Burgers

Miami cafe helps troubled kids earn self-respect - and a little money.

Until recently, Danny Almiero harbored an abiding hatred for police officer Gene Kowalski. The Dade County cop caught him stealing cars and helped put him behind bars.

But today, Almiero's anger toward Officer Kowalski is gone. In fact, he can even tell you that Kowalski likes his hamburgers cooked well-done.

The two have been brought together in an unusual juvenile-justice program known as Teen Cuisine. From a tiny cantina trailer in the lobby of the two-story Dade County Juvenile Justice Center, the 14-year-old makes $32 a day cooking meals for cops, judges, lawyers, and social workers.

The program is the idea of Juvenile Court Judge Tom Petersen. When teens are finished doing time, they serve meals. They are transitioned back into society by attending a special high school behind the courthouse/juvenile-jail facility and by working in the cantina one day a week.

As simple as it sounds, Teen Cuisine offers a potential solution to one of the most complex questions facing the American criminal justice system: reconnecting kids coming out of jail to society, so they don't end up in the adult system as career criminals.

For years, states have built more jails and meted out tougher sentences to juvenile offenders. But increasingly states are turning their attention to what happens once teens are released.

"Earlier on, a lot of effort was spent on locking individuals up without time, thought or resource spent on whatever else is going on once they get out," says David Altschuler, principal researcher at the John Hopkins Institute of Policy Study in Baltimore, who focuses on ways to ease young offenders back into society.

"But now that a lot of them are coming out," he says, "there's more of a focus on 'What do we do now?' "

* In Ohio, the Department of Youth Services gives cash to counties that find ways to keep youths out of prison.

* In Boston, police officers, parents, and community leaders collaborate with probation officers in supervising troubled youths.

* In Vermont, officials are looking into setting up a high school within the state prison system.

* In Stoneham, Mass, juvenile offenders run a landscaping business.

"The beginning notion of a more aggressive kind of after care is taking hold," says Yitzhak Bakal, president of the North American Family Institute in Danvers, Mass., which runs the Stoneham project and 22 other programs for troubled youths in nine states.

"The new thinking is, 'This is a time when a young person will pick up a skill,' " he says.

Preparing kids for life in the real world after they live in the intense structure of a residential facility is complex, and expensive. It involves understanding what leads a kid to commit a crime - a violent school, drugs, or negative peer pressure.

"Just giving kids a job doesn't do it," says Mr. Altschuler. He says good after-care programs involve a combination of schooling, job skills, family intervention, and mentoring.

But the lack of funding and the public's demand for harsh punishment still stand in the way, most experts say.

Judge with a juvenile plan

Yet in Miami, Teen Cuisine creator Judge Petersen says he's waging a lonely battle against the "incarceration mentality" of his state. Florida, he says, leads the nation in terms of the number of kids being tried as adults.

He says he first learned the value of work in inspiring confidence as a volunteer working in one of Miami's most depressed neighborhoods. Later, when taking a break from his job in the state attorney's office, he worked with public-housing residents to set up grocery stores to help them get out of the welfare cycle.

When Petersen came back to the Dade County justice system in the mid-1980s, this time as a juvenile judge, he knew that at-risk kids too had to invest their energies in something constructive.

What he saw alarmed him: 90 percent of the kids going through the system ended up getting rearrested. Most couldn't read or write beyond the fourth-grade level. Petersen embarked on a crusade to reroute kids through schooling and work.

"The alternative is go back to their regular school and fail," Petersen says. To change young people's behaviors, Petersen says, the system must "give them an alternative they will buy into, with some status and some economic rewards."

In 1989, he set up a food business inside the justice center for youths who'd gone through the system.

A few years later, he launched the school that uses the cafeteria as a focus. Today, with a budget of roughly $800,000 a year, the school serves 50 youths.

Most of the students have been referred by the courts to the school as an alternative to jail sentences, or they come after they've spent time in a lock-up facility. Most have committed violent crimes, including armed robbery and carjacking.

With its cafeteria component, Petersen's school is one of the most promising after-care programs Florida has to offer, says Carlos Martinez, a researcher at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice who has evaluated the program.

Mr. Martinez says youths leaving the program are committing fewer crimes. Their grades have improved, and they've been suspended fewer times. "It works because kids buy into it," says Peterson from his office, upstairs from the cafeteria.

Service with a smile

Downstairs, in the busy lobby of the Dade County Justice Center, the food business is going full speed. Today's chef is Latron Steadman, a boyish looking 16- year-old.

As he hands a security guard a dish of chicken wings over the pickup counter of the trailer, a smile creeps on his face.

It's been a long time since he smiled much. He says that when he was in jail, he only thought about smashing cars, breaking into stores, and stealing clothes. He's now proud that he knows how to cook, a skill that's "changed my whole game plan," he says.

"When he first got here, he was angry, his rage was just below the surface," says Jennifer Schuster, who runs the school. "It's amazing this change in him. He's beginning to connect with the people around him."

"All of a sudden he's coming out smiling," she says.

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