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Maryland Department Of Juvenile Services Offering Unique Program To Help Families With Young People Once Behind Bars

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- As the State of Maryland searches for ways to prevent crime, one agency is testing out a unique program that could help some of the youngest people behind bars.

Jasean Harris is his mother's only son.

"For 14 years, it was just us," Harris said.

But then came a time when she could no longer protect him.

"I figure something was going to happen, you know," Harris said. "I'm not going to walk out of this situation."

Late one night in 2019, Harris had a run-in with the law, he was dealing drugs.

"I just got pulled over, it was me and a friend," he said. "[The officer] smelled the substance of marijuana, said can you step out the car for a little bit, and at that moment I already knew."

At just the age of 17, Harris knew that moment would mark his entry into the criminal justice system.

"I'm just texting my girlfriend at the time and was just telling her, you know I got pulled over, at that time I had a firearm," Harris said. "So she's asking me where is the firearm? I'm telling her, it's in my bag."

After drug and weapons charges, Harris eventually ended up at the Charles H. Hickey Juvenile Detention Center in Baltimore County.

"It's really hard to have a child that's behind bars. It doesn't matter what age, it's really hard," Julia Brisbon said.

For four long months, Brisbon tried her best to navigate the system as she waited for her son to be released. Once he got out, she was determined he would not return.

"I already knew that shut him down and when he came home he was going to be a changed person," Brisbon said.

That's where the Department of Juvenile Services [DJS] came in.

"Oftentimes when families come into the justice system, they are confused," Kara Aanenson, Director of Family Engagement and Resources at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said.

In 2018, the agency started to pair parents who once had a child behind bars with moms and dads who are currently going through the same ordeal.

WJZ's Ava-joye Burnett: "Why is it so important to have someone who has been there, done that,  to help someone who is going through one of the worst times in their lives?"

Aanenson: "I think that sometimes it's embarrassing to say your young person is involved in the juvenile justice system. It's not something that you necessarily want to bring up to your friends and your co-workers. To have someone who has dealt with those issues and has felt frustrated to really have an honest conversation with you is really beneficial to families."

So far, the DJS has matched hundreds of families. Some of the charges are as serious as murder. The department believes this could prevent teens from becoming repeat offenders.

Brisbon's mentor is Janet Terrell-Jones.

"She was there to listen to me," Brisbon said. "She wasn't here to judge me and she always gave me the utmost respect."

Years ago, her son was locked up for a gun charge, too. She's now helping Brisbon and Harris with regular meetings and letting them know about resources that could help.

"It's very heartwarming to know that the support that I gave Ms. Julia," Terrell-Jones, a peer support specialist at the Maryland Coalition of Families, said. "We help families and know how it feels."

Harris graduated from high school this year, and he believes the DJS program, which also had bible study classes, helped to turn his life around.

"That's what I really always ask for, forgiveness, you know," he said. "The main thing is forgiveness and to be the best man I can be for my family."

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