Amateur Sports: SJJ Gives Juveniles a Second Chance

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The average age of SJJ youth is 14 and children surveyed range in age from eight to 18

Sports for Juvenile Justice started in 2012 and is partnered with the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative and supported by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

SJJ focuses on placing youth already in the juvenile justice system into sports-based programs and activities.

SJJ got started after PYSC co-founder and Out-of-School Time Resource Center Nancy Peter was approached by Robert Reed of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Reed wanted to know if the collaborative could do work with at-risk youth before they continued down a path of crime and re-offended later in life.

“He was really interested in sports and positive youth development as a way to decrease recidivism,” Peter said.

PYSC then began working with Aubrey Kent, who is the Chair and associate professor of the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University.

Kent founded the Sport Industry Research Center at the university about six years ago and since then has been measuring the impact sports programs have on juveniles. Kent assesses the short-term and long-term impact of SJJ and the effect it has on youths involved in sports-based activities.]

“One of our expertise areas is measuring attitudes and latent variables, which people can’t see,” Kent explained. “We put in place a measurement system based in positive youth development, which measures things like self-perception of competence at activities, how they interact with peers, how they learn about empathy, teamwork and character development stuff.”

Kent said that collaborative groups have a need for such data assessments because funding agencies want evidence of the effectiveness of programming rather than just story telling.

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Youth development programs have strayed from using sports purely as a distraction

Some of the PYSC-member groups Kent has worked with include Legacy Youth Tennis and Education, Zhang Sah Martial Arts, Starfinder Foundation, Philadelphia City Rowing, and Youth Mentoring Partnership.

The mission, he said, has always been to be a service to these groups and not a cost. He said he is very proud of that fact that none one of the groups have ever been charged for the services provided.

“We managed to pay for it through subsidies from other SIRC projects and we’ve done some grant writings to some of the foundations that we reached out to,” Kent said.

Data for youths who have been involved with the programs for several years can be tracked to determine if there is a positive change. In addition, SJJ data can be compared with kids who are not afforded the same opportunities and the impact sports-based programs have on youths specifically, can be isolated.

As Kent noted, sports are no longer used as just a distraction for youths, but more to instill values and have a positive impact on them going forward.

“It’s not just about having kids in your facility because we’re worried about what they’ll do if they’re unattended,” Kent said. “It has to be about implementing positive change in their lives so that even if they’re not supervised or they graduate, we’re convinced that you’ve been able to impact their values and work ethic.

“Frankly, changing behavior is very easy, but changing attitudes that drive behaviors is difficult,” Kent said. “So the groups are focusing more and more on changing values rather than just behaviors.”

“Changing behavior is very easy, but changing attitudes that drive behaviors is difficult,” Kent said

The average age of SJJ youth is 14 and children surveyed range in age from eight to 18. Data compiled for SJJ research cannot be shared because of confidentiality reasons and to ensure that the children being surveyed know that their answers will remain anonymous.

In its early stages, it was unclear if SJJ would be a success given the hurdles it faced aiding at-youth risk. Some of the challenges included transportation issues as well as the juvenile’s unwillingness to participate in programs that were not ordered by the court. To combat those challenges SJJ partnered with NorthEast Treatment Centers, which is a court-mandated organization that provides a wide range of services to youths including free transportation.

After addressing those issues, SJJ was recognized in 2013 at the Beyond Sports Conference and was the recipient of the “Best New Project” Award.

The SJJ initiative has many goals, but perhaps the most important is to change youth’s attitudes for the better through sports and lower recidivism. So ultimately, Kent said, the children can grow and become good, well-rounded citizens.

– Text, images and video by Michelle Kapusta and Stephen Pileggi.

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