Giving young offenders a dose of reality to help get their lives on track

Carroll's success with Reality USA, an anti-substance abuse program that offers first-time youthful offenders a chance to avoid prosecution, has made the county a promotional model in Maryland and elsewhere.

The county, which launched its Reality program in 1998, continues to lead the state in the number of participants - those referred by judges and parents - and continues to have the lowest rate of repeat offenders, said Terry Ober, Reality's national coordinator.


Carroll's program remains the premier model, mainly because of the commitment of its organizers, instructors and volunteers, 244 and growing, he said.

"Florida, Delaware and West Virginia are just about ready to implement the program, and I found myself telling them about what Carroll had done to develop its strong program," Ober said. "You can teach the program from the manual, or you can teach it from the heart, with a personal touch.


"That personal touch is what sets Carroll apart," he said.

During four three-hour sessions on weekend evenings, participants receive an in-your-face look at the dangers of substance abuse, its toll on community and family, and the finality of death. Participants visit a hospital, funeral homes and the county detention center.

'Phenomenal rate'

Of 213 students enrolled in Carroll's program, five have reoffended, a "phenomenal 2 percent recidivism rate," said Ober, who visited Westminster yesterday to give Reality Salute awards to Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes and his staff and to Westminster Police Sgt. Mike Bible.

The national recidivism rate is 5 percent, a figure that has remained constant since the program began in Tennessee about 19 years ago, Ober said. Carroll also has low drop-out and dismissal rates, Ober noted. Thirty-eight youths have failed to complete the four sessions, less than 18 percent, he said.

Designed for 14- to 21-year-olds, Reality draws about 80 percent of its participants from court-ordered referrals. Parents also refer sons or daughters who they believe might be heading down the wrong path, organizers say.

Ober, a former Maryland state trooper, took the Reality program to the Eastern Shore after seeing it in action in Tennessee in 1996.

Prince George's County will become the 14th Maryland jurisdiction to implement the program in September, and Ober predicted Howard, Baltimore, Cecil, Allegany and Caroline counties will have programs within nine months.


Carroll, Frederick, Talbot and one yet-to-be-named county will begin pilot programs for parents of Reality students by January, and Baltimore City is expected to begin the program by next spring, Ober said.

Prince George's County plans to pilot a Hispanic version by February, he said.

'Change in their lives'

"You can see the benefit in the change that occurs in kids between the first and fourth session," Bible said. "They come in the first night with a attitude. It's so obvious in the way the slouch in their seats.

"By the fourth night, you can see a change in their lives," he said.

Their transformation occurs in sobering doses of reality.


A dozen funeral directors in Carroll volunteer, helping students plan their funerals. Dozens of hospital staff members perform in dramatic presentations in which students witness what it is like to tell parents their children have died of an overdose.

Young heroin addicts share their horrific personal tales. The final session is held at the county jail, where guards and inmates make an impression.

Barnes enjoys giving a "pep talk" the final night, reminding students that the Reality program is their one "break" to stay out of the justice system.

The cost of the program is $130, but no one is turned away.