Over the last five years, 775 young criminals -- some convicted of drug-dealing, robbery, and assault -- have taken Sergeant Roger Redd's crash course in law and order. All but a handful have stayed out of trouble. Here's how a former drill sergeant uses physical and moral discipline to shake men loose from a life of crime.
It's early morning in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the army's 82nd Airborne Division. Thirty pairs of feet shuffle clumsily to the cadence of a husky-voiced sergeant. Perhaps it's a little too early for some of these recruits, who are having trouble following orders. "Don't show me a grin, I'm not a dentist," snaps Sergeant Roger Redd. "Don't anticipate the command. Pay attention. Engage the brain, engage the brain."
A tough-love regiment proves to be one of the most effective antidotes to youth crime in the nation
Although the rows of young men with closely cropped hair may resemble greenhorn troops from nearby Fort Bragg, the scene is deceptive. The men are not recruits -- they're criminals. And this isn't boot camp, it's the parking lot of the Cumberland County courthouse.
"You say you got in trouble, you can't do anything with your life," Redd says. "Wrong answer. You decided to break the law. You made a mistake, but now you're going to profit from it. You're going to do right."
Welcome to Sergeant Redd's physical-training program, a court-approved plan to turn troublemakers on probation into law-abiding citizens. Redd, a court bailiff and former army drill sergeant, oversees a military-style regimen three mornings a week that mixes physical discipline, mental toughness, and common-sense counseling. Less than a chain gang but more than a Jane Fonda workout, Redd's 90-day program is being hailed locally as one of the most successful efforts anywhere to take youthful offenders otherwise bound for prison and turn their lives around.
In a few hours, Redd will be busy at his paying job: handcuffing suspects, breaking up fights, and escorting criminals to court or to jail. But now, at just after 5 a.m., he's volunteering to steer these youngsters away from a lawless future by giving them some private lessons on crime and punishment. One at a time, they stand up and explain how they got into trouble with the law.
"I was charged with auto theft," one mumbles.
"You were stealing cars," says Redd, pacing slowly.
"I wasn't stealin' cars. I was stealin' car parts."
"What were you gonna' do," Redd fires back, "put a car together?"
"Get down and push. It's 'no, sir!' "
The boy drops to the ground and starts doing push-ups while others stand and recite their stories. No one else forgets to say "sir."
But Redd isn't through with them yet. "If you're used to using your conscience every day, then you're not going to go out and do something stupid," he says. "By the time you leave here, you should be remorseful for what you've done." His aim: teach personal responsibility and break the men of their "I'm a victim" mentality. Until that happens, Redd says, he won't be able to shake them loose from criminal behaviors and keep them out of prison.
Make no mistake: Prison is exactly where most of the men, ages 16 to 21, are headed. "Most come to this program because they failed every other method to keep them out of the Department of Corrections," says court administrator Kim Tucker. "This is the last stop."
All are on probation for committing a nonviolent offense, such as breaking and entering, larceny, or drug possession. Many are repeat offenders, whose crimes as juveniles -- which are expunged from public record -- include arson, robbery, and even assault with a deadly weapon. Virtually all of them have violated the conditions of their probation, and are one step away from prison. "Most of them have never been taught discipline or respect," says Redd. "They're used to doing what they want to, on their own, when they get good and ready. And suddenly now someone's in charge telling them what to do and how not to do it. It's a shock to them."
This may be just the kind of shock therapy needed to jolt young lawbreakers to their senses. About 775 of the 875 men and women who've entered the program have gone on to complete it. According to the county court, only 15 of the graduates have been charged with subsequent criminal offenses. Redd, who keeps a file of each of his graduates, says that 65 have joined the army, and many have completed high school and gotten jobs. "I'm in a position to see a lot of young men come through here," says assistant district attorney Charles Scott, who regularly refers men to the program. "We've seen a very small number come back."
Criminal-justice officials say they know of no other alternatives to prison -- not boot camps, not home surveillance, not work programs -- that approach the program's success rates. "It's the best alternative sentencing program that I'm aware of in the state of North Carolina, and maybe nationally, in terms of results achieved," says E. Lynn Johnson, a superior-court judge who helped Redd launch the effort more than five years ago.
Redd got the idea after helplessly watching teens and young adults stream in and out of court -- men who, in Redd's view, needed a muscular dose of physical and moral discipline. But they weren't likely to get that from the state's probation system or from imprisonment. "Think about it. In prison you get free education, exercise, television," says Art Zeidman, a candidate for superior-court judge who has run alternatives-to-prison programs in Raleigh. "For the first-time offender, the system is one of a comfortable cocoon, and they don't feel a need to stay away from it."
Patricia Timmons Goodson, a district-court judge in Cumberland County, says she was "not satisfied at all" with her sentencing options. Supervised probation, a commonly used alternative to prison, often fails because a mere handful of county probation officers are asked to track nearly 1,900 youthful offenders now in the system. "You would continue to see many -- too many -- of the same young people coming back," she says.
Redd was convinced his army experience offered a solution. Participants in his program enter a structured training environment a few hours a day, three days a week, for three months. They must arrive on time, wear uniforms, and learn basic drills. They also receive regular warnings to stay in school, along with practical instruction about finding and keeping jobs.
Add to this Redd's blend of personal and professional grit: He grew up poor in a family of eight children; signed up for three tours in Vietnam as an infantry combat soldier; piloted an attack helicopter that was gunned down over Hamburger Hill; received five Purple Hearts for being wounded five times; spent six months in a hospital bed with a foot wound while doctors fretted that he would never walk again; and retired, a first sergeant with the 82nd Airborne, after 22 years in the military.
Redd's approach offers both a carrot and a stick. Graduates avoid jail and might also see the court relax their probation requirements. Nongraduates head straight to jail. Redd decides who is fit to graduate -- with no second chances and no appeals.
An early believer, Judge Johnson first began referring men to the program in February 1991. Today, virtually every judge, district attorney, and probation officer in the county's court system scouts out offenders who might be good candidates. Court officers such as Goodson regularly don sneakers and sweats and join Redd in the morning to speak to his latest crop of students.
The key to Redd's strategy is using the best of his military training to reinforce good habits and, eventually, good attitudes. That includes regular drills, countless push-ups, five-mile runs, and swift consequences for disobeying commands. For these men, many of whom have dropped out of high school and haven't held a job, getting up and getting to the courthouse on time is a milestone in personal discipline.
Everyone gets a chance to act as a squad leader, yelling out drill commands. The reason: Many kids who get into trouble do so because they are followers, easily drawn into crime when they're idle. "The man is totally in control of his actions. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, but he still has a great time," says Wesley, one of Redd's graduates who returns a few mornings a month to help train others in the program. "He's teaching them to act independently, not to go along with the crowd."
The approach differs from many boot-camp experiments, however, because it offers much more than a physical regimen. Says Johnson: "It goes beyond just physically getting in their faces and teaching them how many push-ups they can do, but teaching them to be a man or a woman along the way."
How does the sergeant teach young men about manhood? In Redd's equation, it's the little decisions that matter, the choices that eventually add up to excellence and integrity. So when he sees his troops marching out of formation, he pounces. "That's raggedy," he barks. "I said a straight row. That's like being on your job and they want you to make sure the pots and pans are put away and they're clean. You do it and you do it right. Men have discipline."
Redd also counsels the men, individually and in groups. They never seem to know when he'll launch into a mini-sermon about responsibility, honesty, or conscience. Sometimes Redd will focus on building their self-respect: "Every one of you sitting here, from left to right, is just as good as I am. But now you've got a temporary setback," he says. "What you have to do is keep yourself straight and work hard."
During his speech, Redd spots a late arrival who tries to slip into formation. He doesn't miss a beat: "Get down and push! If you're late tomorrow, just keep on running, right to jail. Because you're going to jail, because you can't follow instructions. You have an obligation and responsibility to yourself to get here on time."
At other times, he presses home the obligation to show respect for others. One of his favorite phrases: "People have the right to be left alone." Redd asks the men to picture themselves as adult parents (some of them are), and to imagine one of their children dying of a cocaine overdose, or a stab wound, or from gun fire. "I want them to realize they would not want this to happen to their child," he says later. "So I place them in a predicament. It makes them wake up and think. Now we're engaging the brain."
After less than a week in the program, Mike's brain already is engaged. He was convicted of burglary and assault with a weapon. Now, during a short break between drills, he says he's determined to graduate so he can clear his record. He's studying computer programming at Fayetteville Technical Training College. "I'm trying to think about the future," he says. Wesley, the recent grad who volunteers as a squad leader, was arrested on drug charges but now works as a graphic artist. "It gave me a real hope that I could still make something of myself," he says, "regardless of the past."
Redd usually works with about 50 men at a time (plus an occasional woman or two), and nearly 90 percent of them graduate. They might be rewarded with termination of their probation, fewer hours of community service, or reduced fines. Court officials hold a graduation ceremony for each class, and distribute diplomas and special awards donated by community groups, including a tuition scholarship to a local community college. The graduates, all wearing white shirts and black ties, often will pause to thank Redd for being tough on them and convincing them they could make it.
"You can see the care in him," says Kathy Bond, the county's chief probation officer. "You see that hard-nosed soldier, but then you see that other side of him, too -- that compassionate person that really wants to help somebody." That's a combination most of these men have rarely glimpsed before. Many grew up with no father in the home. Some live with cousins or grandmothers or on the streets.
They're usually surprised when Redd offers to take them to church, or out to breakfast, or to help arrange a job interview, or negotiate their sentence with the district attorney. Near the end of one session, Redd has the men stand and explain what they've gotten out of the program so far. Says one boy, "For once the system is not working against me, but working for me."
Straight talk about responsibility and respect, physical discipline that reinforces basic life skills, and a caring but hard-as-nails authority figure -- could that be a formula for breaking the cycle of juvenile crime?
"I think it can be duplicated," says Judge Goodson, "but it's going to take a person that is just as tough . . . and just as committed as Roger Redd." Cumberland County doesn't spend a dime on the program: Redd takes no money for directing the effort, works during his off-hours, uses no county facilities, and asks the local Chamber of Commerce to donate uniforms as needed. By keeping hundreds of offenders out of jail, he calculates, he saves the county $41 a day, or about $6.5 million over the last five years.
Says Judge Johnson: "Roger's experiment here could be contagious." The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that at least 520,000 of the nation's juveniles are placed on probation each year. With numbers like that, we should hope for an epidemic.