Jan 31, 2013 4:30 PM by Lauren Molenburg
DETROIT (AP) - When Otsego County Judge Mike Cooper puts teenage lawbreakers on probation, he may also require them to do push-ups, pull-ups and other physical exercises with their probation officer, a former military man who trained overweight and out-of-shape soldiers.
Young offenders assigned to the Youth Fitness Academy also get life lessons - balancing a checkbook, buying a car, using hand and power tools, growing vegetables and raising chickens.
In the process, Cooper said, they also get a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Only a handful have gotten into trouble again.
Now, Cooper's academy is the focus of a new online video series, "Court Stories," a production of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Cooper, a probate judge who handles family matters for the county in Gaylord, got the idea for the academy from a judge in Alpena who also orders some juveniles to exercise as part of their probation.
The video series, launched this month by court spokeswoman Marcia McBrien, a lawyer, will tell the stories of courts across the state, and the people they serve. McBrien said future episodes are planned on a court for veterans, and a court that uses volunteers to guide court visitors in response to budget cuts.
McBrien said she was reading submissions from courts around Michigan for a quarterly newsletter and came across one about the Youth Fitness Academy. She wanted to share the idea behind the academy with other courts, but thought "there's got to be another way to share the same information and to depict it in a real way."
She decided to do a video series. Each episode will run 5-10 minutes and will "tell stories about the court in an immediate and appealing way," she said.
Cooper called it a "great idea ... that's how you learn, seeing what someone else is doing and adapting to your own locality."
And a video conveys "expressions ... enthusiasm that are harder to sense in print," he said.
Dorene Allen, a probate and juvenile judge in Midland County, said the video project allows judges to learn about new initiatives without waiting for the next conference.
"This is a nice way to have exposure to other judges' programs," she said.
Cooper said he got his idea for the Youth Fitness Academy from Probate Judge Thomas LaCross, who handles family cases in Alpena County.
LaCross said he also likes the idea of the videos.
"The courts are very, very busy and as much as we try to share information, it becomes difficult," LaCross said.
LaCross said he started the Alpena Youth Academy in 2008 as a way to save money by keeping young offenders out of juvenile detention centers, and to deal with a growing obesity problem among teens. In its first year, one girl lost 30 pounds.
LaCross said the offenders attend the academy for 90 minutes, three times a week after school and during the summer. The teens are supervised by two sheriff's deputies and probation officers. They work out at a gym about a block from the courthouse. The academy has about 75-100 participants a year.
The academy has saved money and cut by 50 percent the number of repeat offenders, LaCross said. He also requires some offenders to perform supervised community service -- and they must wear a vest that labels them a juvenile detainee.
In Otsego County, juvenile probation officer Wesley Smith works with the offenders assigned to the Youth Fitness Academy as part of their probation. He was formerly in the Army, where he trained soldiers at risk of being kicked out because they were out of shape or overweight.
Offenders assigned to the academy, launched in summer 2010, attend for 90 minutes two or three times a week. They work out or play sports for the first 45 minutes, then learn life skills -- such as the difference between a debit and credit card and budgeting. Over the summer, they built a chicken coop, and planted vegetables in raised garden beds.
They range in age from 11 to 17, and are on probation for drug possession or use, shoplifting, fighting and the like.
Out of 19 participants in 2010, only two got into trouble again. In 2011, two out of 20 participants were re-arrested. Nine offenders went through the program this year.
Smith said that when he trains the offenders, he wears sweat pants and does push-ups or runs right alongside them. And that's when they may confide in him.
"Sometimes kids need to be distracted and then they open up," Smith said.
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)