DJJ embraces POPP programs; testimony inspires lawmakers’ support 
What a tremendous time for the Power of Peace Project. Under a twelve-month agreement with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), I’ll be working in Georgia’s toughest  juvenile facility for the next year. Commissioner Tyrone Oliver and members of the board of the DJJ voiced support for our “Reward over Punishment” principles when I presented before them recently, and I found support among members of a Georgia House panel during recent testimony as well. It’s time for a change. 


“This is a
paradigm shift”

The DJJ initiative will begin at Eastman Juvenile Detention Center, known as one of the most challenging in the state. How will it work?

It flips the model.

I asked the kids: “If you had a big enough reward, would you guys be willing to work together to bring about peace?“

One young man nailed it: “We’re already working together — we’re working together to do evil. Give us a good enough reason and we can work together to do good.”

Basically we’ve got these kids on lockdown because of poor behavior and then we’re expecting them to behave better. When they don’t, they rarely if ever get back the privileges they lost and more is taken away, so the  issues remain or oftentimes get even worse. Kids are restless and get in trouble when they have nothing to do, and these escalating problems are taxing a severely understaffed system and fueling more violence.

This is a brand-new approach. If they show us they can do positive things, good things will happen for them and they can earn privileges back. Maybe it’s pizza. Or hygiene products like lotion. Or the return of their state-issued tablets. I tell them I can’t promise them everything, but I do commit that I will fight for them and work with the warden on their behalf. 

“How do we know you’re going to come back,” one asked.

“Watch what I do more than what I say,” I replied. I had only known him for ten minutes and this teen was already struggling with abandonment issues and experiencing separation anxiety. No one has ever come through for many of these kids.

The contract I signed with the DJJ is for the next year, and I then will be working with centers across Georgia where about 1,000 kids are currently locked ups.

They’re coming home one day soon. The question is, in what shape will they return?

“This needs to be in every state prison and I’m going to push the governor to make that happen.”

As I watched the lawmakers before me nod their heads and say things like the above, I was moved and energized thinking about the possibilities ahead. They were embracing what I had been building and teaching — it gave me so much hope. 

I was testifying before a Georgia House committee looking at the Georgia Department of Corrections, talking about the “Punishment vs. Reward” model for prison reform and was so encouraged by their engagement and response. 

This wasn’t just validation. We have a real shot. “I’m going to push to get this program throughout the state,” said one lawmaker. This is support, not just acknowledgement. 

There have been times when I wondered why I didn’t quit, why I was doing this.

I’m so glad I didn’t.

Let’s do this thing. It’s time.