A Chance for Juvenile Offenders to Go Straight

Jeremy Cokley
Jeremy Cokley
Police Chief Michael Berkow
Police Chief Michael Berkow

Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police say there are more kids committing crimes in Chatham County than anywhere else in Georgia, including the Atlanta area.

Local police have arrested juveniles recently for breaking into homes and shops, calling in bomb threats, robbing people at gunpoint and shooting each other.

Police have come up with several strategies to combat crime, like truancy patrols and new programs. Is anything working?

One program in particular does seem to be stopping young criminals from continuing down a violent path. It's the Savannah Impact Program. But, its not just the officers claiming it works. A 15-year-old criminal said the program is turning his life around.

Jeremy Cokley comes across as a quiet, mild-mannered teenager. He helps his mother take out the trash and loves playing basketball in an after school program.

But take a look into Cokley's juvenile record and you will find a violent past. Two years ago he was arrested at Shuman Middle School for trying to slit a 12-year-old girl's throat.

Police arrested him again several months later for beating up a boy.

Last summer Cokley was released from a youth detention center and met Corporal Clarence Few. Few checks on Cokley several times a week, stopping by his house and school.

Cpl. Few is one of three Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police officers assigned to the Savannah Impact juvenile program. He works with the juvenile court system to find ways to keep kid criminals out of trouble.

Few said, "For the most part it seems like the kids we are dealing with, they have that survival mentality and violence is a part of their life. They carry it with them where ever they go, whether it be school or out on the street. It's part of the way they are socialized."

Savannah Impact offers helps kids improve their attitudes, continue their education and get off drugs. It was the summer program that set Cokley straight.

Cokley said it made a big difference for him. "I'd probably still be hanging with the wrong crowd."

The boys in his group did classroom work and took out of town trips together.. Since Cokley started the program last May, he has stayed out of trouble.

Not every young criminal does as well as him, but many in the juvenile system give a lot of credit to the Savannah Impact Program and they are glad to see that it's expanding.

This month 30 more of Chatham County's most-problematic kids will be assigned to an officer like Cpl. Few.

Few said, "I would even argue ultimately, as a justification for what we do and expanding the unit and expanding the number of juveniles, that society-wise you are going to have to pay the price sooner or later eventually. You can put the work in now when these kids are young and try to turn them around or you'll pay for it later on when these same kids are robbing you or breaking in your house or selling drugs."

Cpl. Few is hopeful this month's new group of young criminals will break their cycle of crime just as successfully as Cokley has.

While the Savannah Impact Program is moving forward both with it's juvenile and adult offender programs, they are currently without a director.

Former director SCMPD Major Keith Vermillion resigned and took a job in Florida earlier this year. He was with the program since it started six years ago.

Police Chief Michael Berkow is taking a good look at Savannah Impact before he appoints a new director. Berkow said, "Savannah Impact is a labor intensive project for us, we have 14-15 officers assigned over there full time and that's a lot of police officers for us to commit to that project, so we need to make sure that we are doing the right thing in the right way."

Berkow does not have a timeline as to when he will name a new director.

Reported by Michelle Paynter, mpaynter@wtoc.com