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Upping the Dosage

Got tipped to a compelling program being offered by the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, the hard-hitting "Dose of Reality" tour, which attempts to deter "at-risk" young people from criminality by offering an "insider's" view on life behind bars.

The tour features blunt, often shocking, presentations from jail inmates, as well as from victims of crime or drunk driving and their families. The ultimate goal of the program is to open the eyes of people to the reality that may await them if they do not change their ways.

Let me say up front that I think that any program designed to help steer young people away from street life should be commended, so props definitely go out to the officers — and inmates — who have worked on the tour over the past 16 years. And goodness knows the city can't have enough efforts aimed at keeping our children out of trouble.

Even so, I'm still left wondering: In a city like ours, can programs like this really make a big difference?

Again, I have no problem with showing kids what awaits crooks in jail and am reminded of that searing, late-70s "Scared Straight!" documentary that tried to give juveniles an unfiltered look at life "on the inside." If taking a child into Wayne County Jail or the county morgue to see what the endgame looks like for violent criminals is enough to keep them off the streets, then more power to these efforts.

But it's 2010, and jail subculture has been woven so tightly into the fabric of contemporary urban pop culture — thanks to TV, music and film — that for many kids it's a norm. (Check the clip below on "sagging pants" for a hint at what I'm talking about.) As a result, too many of our young people no longer harbor a healthy fear of imprisonment. Some, tragically, even expect it, having already seen older brothers, uncles, cousins and fathers get locked down.

And to many of the young hustlers on our city streets, even the risk of death is just an occupational hazard that they grudgingly "charge to the game."

It's not that many of these kids don't know where, say, drug dealing or other criminal activity can lead. They do. But in a state with double-digit unemployment and a city with reeling schools and fading job opportunities, it's the alternatives to crime that some young folks have a tough time viewing realistically.

Thus, while I certainly respect programs that try to steer children away from negative influences, I personally wish there were also more programs that showed these children, in just as vivid detail, what they should strive for. (Not to mention programs designed to combat the structural woes we're all facing.) Reality can cut both ways, of course. So for every visit to jail these troubled kids take, I'd like to see them take two more visits to corporate offices or college campuses.

Efforts like the "Dose of Reality" tour ought to be applauded for urging troubled Detroit children to eschew failure — although it's going to take even more to teach those youths to embrace success.

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