How Do We Break the Cycle of Bad Choices? Preventing Them in the First Place!

by Thomas M.J. Hathaway

Ret. Circuit Court Judge
Published On: July 26, 2023Categories: Insights, Social Justice

Intro: In the following op-ed piece, the Honorable Thomas M.J. Hathaway, a retired Wayne County Circuit Court judge, reflects on his experience dealing with troubled youth and young adults, and the vital importance of proven violence prevention programs like those offered by Life Directions. This op-ed appeared in The Detroit News (subscriber only) on July 23, 2023.

As a judge in the criminal docket of Michigan’s busy Third Judicial Circuit, I had well over 1,000 people appear before me who found themselves sideways with the law.

It didn’t take me long to see a pattern. Nearly 80 percent of those were youth and young adults who had three things in common:

  • They dropped out of high school
  • They didn’t have two parents in their home
  • They started using drugs during middle school at the earliest, or high school at the latest

As we endure another summer of gun violence and senseless crime in our city, it’s time to once again examine how we break the cycle of destructive behavior and bad decisions that lead our young people down dangerous paths.

Over my career as a lawyer and judge, I’ve seen how we spend the majority of grants and assistance dollars on intervention programs designed to help people fix broken lives after the fact — and much smaller sums on preventing poor choices to begin with.

We have an example of how prevention works, and it’s right here in Detroit. It’s a nonprofit called Life Directions. For 50 years, Life Directions has quietly and effectively demonstrated to more than 170,000 young people they have the power to take charge of their future and prevent the need for intervention programs.

Life Directions works with local high schools to identify youth and young adults ages 13 to 35 who are experiencing “at risk” circumstances. It matches troubled youths with trained peers who do something that is increasingly rare these days: They listen. Without judgment or preconception or prejudice.

The peer coaches then talk about positive values that encourage balance in relationships; self-responsibility; a mission-driven attitude; about making a choice to not be a victim; about the importance of giving back and being an example to others; and forgiving those who have hurt them.

The Life Directions methods work. Among the outcome findings: 93 percent of participating 8th graders stayed in high school; 82 percent of youth participants increased their academic motivation; 62 percent of students increased percentile rank in reading and 82 percent increased their percentile rank in math.

As I think back on my career, there are several instances of watching young people take charge of their future that stand out.

Five years ago, a young man and woman who entered the Life Directions program in middle school graduated as the valedictorian and salutatorian from Western International High School in Detroit. Both got full scholarships to college. One went to Michigan State University and the other to the University of Michigan.

And then there was the young woman who had been arrested six times by the time she was 16 years old. That was her normal. She didn’t even know she had a problem. But because Life Directions opened her eyes to other choices, she has gone on to lead a more fulfilling and gratifying life as a wife, mother and business development manager of a construction company.

Those are the kinds of stories we need more of. And they are within our power if only we choose to remember the adage that may sound old fashioned, but really is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Let’s get back to preventive basics and form young people to lead wholesome, healthy and productive lives.

Honorable Thomas M. J. Hathaway is a retired Wayne County Circuit Court Judge and former attorney. He is also a board member of Life Directions. 

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