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Juvies - Mark Wahlberg helps juvenile offenders - USA Today

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health, with medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Mark Wahlberg can tell you in detail about the hardships juvenile offenders suffer in adult prison – many of which have serious health consequences. But the 32 year-old actor's knowledge wasn't gained from preparing for a new film role. Wahlberg was prosecuted as an adult and incarcerated when he was 16 years old.

"My incarceration had a huge effect on me and it still does – from my dreams to my every day life and the decisions I make," says Wahlberg. "It affects everything – the people I interact with as well as the people I've had to disassociate my self from."

Wahlberg was able to get out of trouble and find blockbuster success in Hollywood starring in The Italian Job, Three Kings and Planet of the Apes.

Now as executive producer and narrator of Juvies, a documentary about America's failed juvenile justice system, Wahlberg is passionate about exposing the cruel hardships kids face in adult prisons. The national tour of the film kicks off in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 16, at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre.

"Don't get me wrong – I'm not making excuses because there are kids who are extremely dangerous, no question," Wahlberg says. "But the system is simply not taking the time to deal with each individual case. For most of these kids, there is still the possibility of helping them before it's too late. I know. I am an example of that possibility."

Directed by Leslie Neale, the film reveals that the majority of kids who go into the juvenile system don't go on to commit crimes after they're 18. Yet while juvenile crime has dropped 41% in recent years, media coverage of youth crime has increased.

This skewed public perception of exploding youth crime led to all 50 states making it easier to prosecute juvenile offenders as adults. At the same time, the best deterrents for juvenile crime – good schools and youth programs — had their budgets cut. Today, more than 200,000 kids are prosecuted every year as adults.

Wahlberg says the health consequences to youth offenders are both tragic and cruel. "Kids who are jailed with adults get sexually assaulted or beaten five times more than kids in juvenile facilities," Wahlberg states. "They're eight time more likely to commit suicide." Many mental health experts are appalled by kids doing time in adult prisons.

No brainer
"It's insane," say psychotherapist John Schureman, who specializes in disruptive disorders. "To punish kids for an impulse problem when their brains – their frontal lobes — aren't even fully matured makes no sense. It is totally irrational."

And new scientific information from brain scans, genetics and molecular neurology seem to support this opinion. Impulse problems arise from impairments of the frontal lobes or the region of the brain known as the executive control center. The frontal lobes are responsible for planning, organizing, inhibiting inappropriate behaviors, and controlling affect and emotion.

"This region of the brain continues to develop quite late in life – into the late teens and early 20s and perhaps even beyond," explains Elizabeth Sowell, an assistant professor of neurology at UCLA. "We have historically looked at normal adolescent behavior as being erratic. We now think that the late developing frontal lobe may be related to this normal sort of erratic behavior."

According to experts, if teenagers have frontal lobe impairments, they are often unable to remember when they were punished and cannot modify their behavior accordingly. "Adolescents in general have this problem," Schureman says. "The kids in the juvenile and adult prison systems have it in spades." Schureman says almost all of the kids shown in the film have defects in impulse control – either because of a learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or bipolar disorder. In fact, research indicates up to 80% of prison populations suffer from one or more of these three disorders.

"In terms of maturity, these kids are 30% behind – that means an 18 year-old is developmentally probably only 12," Schureman states. "What we're doing is taking impaired kids in their most crucial years of development when they could really benefit from help and we are putting them through a lengthy boot camp for crime and anti-social behavior."

Schureman explains that adolescents with immature frontal lobe development who are placed into adult prisons are traumatized even more. "They will end up with post-traumatic stress disorder which will only further incapacitate their frontal lobe development – that's what PTSD does," Schureman says. "The PTSD from sexual abuse and assaults makes the problem worse. That's why there is such a high recidivism rate."

While approximately 70% of criminal offenders return to prison within five years, there is new hope for effective intervention and rehabilitation. A study of prisoners in Pennsylvania showed that with proper medication for ADHD and bipolar disorder the recidivism rate dropped dramatically. If psycho-social intervention is combined with medication, the success rate increases up to 60%.

But too few adult prisons provide counseling and medications. Even inmate education programs have been cut, despite research that indicates the most successful strategy to prevent recidivism is literacy programs. Literacy training not only provides inmates with better life skills, but the training itself has a positive effect on helping develop the frontal lobes.

"It's the concept that you use it or lose it," Schureman says. "If these kids are being trained how to discipline their minds, how to read and write and how to self-regulate their behavior instead of how to fend for their very survival – then we can have real impact."

Another effective rehabilitation strategy is called mentorship scaffolding. "A strong external support system is exactly what these juvenile offenders need," Schureman offers. "While they of course have to be placed in a confined setting, these kids need more guardians, not guards. There is still a good chance they can be helped."

Wahlberg credits a local priest and his probation officers with helping him turn things around. "Father Flavin was a huge influence in my life," Wahlberg states. "He was always trying to sway me to go in the right direction. In Dorchester, it was all right there – all the directions." But despite the best of intentions, Wahlberg says he still got arrested four or five more times but did not get sent back to jail because his probation officers "had faith in me."

The Boogie Nights star is concerned that kids today aren't getting the crucial second chances that enabled him to turn his life completely around. "If I were judged on what I did before I was 16 and convicted the way the kids are in the film, I'd be doing 150 years," Wahlberg says. The actor hopes the film begins a national dialogue that eventually reverses the current trend of locking up youth offenders with adult inmates. "I plan on doing everything I can to make sure as many people as possible see this film," he says. "Maybe people will see where I came from and see this film and realize these kids can actually still be helped because rehabilitation is in everyone's best interests."

In the meantime, Wahlberg plans to continue the work of his youth foundation. "I am in a position where I can do a lot of good for kids like myself who growing up could easily go one way or the other," Wahlberg says. "If I can inspire some kids and help them to go the right way, hopefully that will help me make up for all the mistakes I made."