Getting dirty to clean up your act

June 3, 2008 5:29:45 PM PDT
A Brazoria County judge is punishing juvenile offenders in a most unorthodox fashion. He's making them do yard work. Getting dirty is helping them clean up their acts.You might expect kids to be playing in the water on the first day of summer vacation. You might not expect them to actually be working in the yard. It's punishment for these teens and pre-teens who got busted at school for fighting or swearing -- Class C misdemeanors punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Participant Josh Jahns recalled, "I was like, $500 dollars? That ain't happening!"

Instead, Brazoria County Justice of the Peace Judge Milan Miller has them buy flowers, plants, and mulch. Judge Miller says part of the reason for this program is to ensure that parents don't just end up paying the fines. He says this way the kids realize there are consequences to their actions.

He said, "It saves their parents a lot of money. They did the crime, they do the time."

Judge Miller is known for his unorthodox punishments. He sometimes has offenders who use foul language write out 10,000 times that they won't ever cuss again. But "Project Grow", as he calls it, is different. He says there's nowhere else in Brazoria County for those under age 15 to do community service.

The kids are assigned a small plot of land outside his courtroom in Freeport -- a space in which they are instructed to plant something. They're required to work the land for six months to water and weed and make sure what they plant, grows.

"That's something that they'll have to take care of week after week after week," Judge Miller explained.

It seems to cause a dramatic transformation in the kids. Take two girls who fought each other at school and later refused to look at, let alone talk to each other. Now they've found, among the insects and the garden, a new respect for each other, for themselves and for authority.

"There's not going to be a next time," participant Alexandra Gonzalez promised. "I'm not getting into no more fights. I'll try to be good."

Teaching these kids how to make good choices, just like cultivating a garden, Judge Miller says, takes patience and a belief that growth is possible. If the children successfully complete "Project Grow," the misdemeanor charges against them are wiped off their records. Judge Miller says this keeps one juvenile decision from haunting them as they attempt to get into college or the military later on.

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