Despite major investment in rehabilitating juvenile offenders, rates of recidivism remain stubbornly high at 37%. Building on his success with all but eliminating glue-sniffing in two cities, Sung-jin’s new approach to rehabilitation has built a new cooperative system involving judges, municipal governments and other stakeholders working with juvenile delinquents, and has spurred efforts to launch Korea’s first social impact bond.
The New Idea
Sung-jin has created an innovative group-home cluster model – World Embracing Youths – recognizing that many juvenile delinquents fall into the cycle of recidivism due to relational and emotional deprivation in their families. A group-home cluster is a rehabilitation center in the form of an extended family consisting of three small group homes. Unlike other group homes and youth rehabilitation centers, Sung-jin’s model is unique in that it is big enough to give a sense of extended family but small enough to avoid the feeling of being institutionalized. This way, juvenile delinquents who have suffered from lack of family attention and support can build family-like relationships and be empowered to break cycles of recidivism.
In Sung-jin’s group-home cluster model, the role of parental figures is critical in creating a stable family environment, which in turn helps juvenile delinquents build lasting supportive relationships. Sung-jin recruits adults with their own history of delinquency to live and work with the youths on site for an extended period of time. Having faced and overcome their own personal problems, these adults can deeply empathize with the youths. Over time the youths are able to build long-term bonds and mutual trust with the parental figures, and get practical life advice. Sung-jin is creating apprenticeship opportunities for current employees and youth residents to spread his model in Bucheon and beyond.
Sung-jin leverages local at-risk youth networks in creating impact beyond the immediate members of group home clusters and lowering recidivism rates. Many existing efforts to address the soaring youth crime rate isolate juvenile delinquents from their peers in a worry that the “troubled kids” might propel other young people to indulge in criminal activities. However, Sung-jin recognizes that sending delinquent youths away from their communities for rehabilitation expands their criminal network, and the nationwide network in turn spreads trends of crime quickly. In Sung-jin’s model, local at-risk youth networks become a useful tool. He leverages the influence of juvenile delinquents over their peers in preventing youth crime and lowering recidivism rates. In the same way that crimes are often more infectious to peers when committed by key network leaders, positive changes can be spread more quickly if started from the core group of the networks.
With the number of young offenders on the rise and the youth recidivism rate increasing, juvenile delinquency is a growing social problem in South Korea despite significant financial and human investment. Juvenile delinquency refers to criminal acts such as robbery, rape, and substance abuse committed by youth between the ages of 12 and 20. The government has spent over $17 million annually in an attempt to prevent juvenile delinquency, according to National Youth Policy Institute. However, the number of juvenile offenders increased sharply from 86,000 in 2010 to 107,000 in 2012. According to the Supreme Prosecutors' Office, youth recidivism rates in 2011 marked a serious figure of 37%, showing that more than one third of the juvenile criminals repeat the act. Bucheon, in particular, is one of the top 5 cities in Korea in terms of violent crime rates, creating a challenging environment for local youth, according to a 2011 study conducted for a legislative hearing.
A broken family is said to be a main reason that leads at-risk youths to delinquency. According to a 2014 Ministry of Justice report, as many as 80% of juvenile delinquents come from low-income or single-parent families. As a result, many youth organizations and government agencies have focused on providing at-risk youths with an alternative safety net through temporary shelters. However, many of these shelters do not address the key issue: providing a stable family environment.
Redeemable youths are in many cases actually further damaged by the current juvenile justice system, with first-time offenders getting sent to detention centers. Sung-jin’s key insight is to keep influential young offenders within the community, and to provide a substitute family structure for the youths who lack family support. Instead of isolating juvenile delinquents and relegating them to institutions with more hardened criminals, Sung-jin takes advantage of the community aspect to rehabilitate them. Through a newfound sense of family, these influential youth become positive leaders as opposed to negative influences. By redirecting the social influence of juvenile delinquents, Sung-jin creates a rippling community effect.
In order to prevent youth crime and lower recidivism rates for juvenile offenders, Sung-jin established World Embracing Youths, a residential rehabilitation center for juvenile delinquents that provides an alternative family structure, in Bucheon – a city infamous for the highest youth crime rates in Korea. The work of World Embracing Youths starts with identifying juvenile delinquents who are motivated and willing to change their lives. To change the entire group of at-risk youths quickly and effectively, Sung-jin specifically targets motivated and influential juvenile delinquents, who in turn become a triggering community that spreads their positive influence across at-risk youth networks through peer pressure. For example, as a court-appointed youth advocate, Sung-jin helps represent young offenders in court. In doing so, he finds juvenile delinquents who are peer network leaders, and builds trust-based relationships and a deep understanding with young offenders who will live at World Embracing Youths. Sung-jin has created referral partnerships with local juvenile courts and a youth legal aid center working nationwide to build a core juvenile delinquent pipeline.
A key to the success of Sung-jin’s group home cluster model is the parental figures. Sung-jin carefully recruits and trains adults who had rough childhood themselves as resident guardians at World Embracing Youths because these adults not only thoroughly empathize with at-risk youths but also can give practical advice. His approach is different from most group homes that are run by social workers with academic credentials and professional training. While social workers spend time on site in shifts, in Sung-jin’s model adults live with the youth residents on site as a father, mother, uncle, or aunt for an extended period of time, building long-term bond and trust
In addition, Sung-jin designed the group home cluster as a set of 3 family units each of which has 5-7 youths. This extended family model provides a more flexible environment than individual group homes do in that it minimizes the risk of family disintegration due to conflicts in a single group home. Sung-jin leverages the legally binding contract with juvenile courts to secure an extended period of time to take care of juvenile offenders because it takes time to build a stable family-like relationship. Staying at World Embracing Youths for 6-24 months, juvenile delinquents build a lasting supportive relationship.
Simply stopping criminal activities is not enough. Juvenile delinquents will only truly change and not return to the cycle of crimes once they find alternatives toward which they can channel their energy, as well as opportunities to make an independent living. Recognizing the challenges juvenile delinquents face in entering the job market, Sung-jin helps the youths make a living using the talents and interests they have discovered at World Embracing Youths through tailored mentorship. For example, in 2009 Sung-jin created a music band and brought together talented juvenile delinquents who were addicted to sniffing glue – the most popular type of substance abuse among youths at that time. Their substance abuse stopped when the youths became “addicted” to music instead, appearing on stage with professional musicians. Graduates of World Embracing Youths launched four companies in fields ranging from entertainment and animal husbandry to music education and tourism. Sung-jin is working to expand skills training opportunities by partnering with the Dream Center, a national skills training program run by the Ministry of Justice.
Sung-jin's model made a major contribution to reducing the glue sniffing cases in Bucheon and Incheon area. In 2012, Bucheon and Incheon accounted for nearly half of glue sniffing by Korean youth between the ages of 14 - 18. Many of the first cohorts at World Embracing Youths struggled with glue addiction with significant implications on their mental and physical health. Sung-jin helped 60 core youth offenders in Bucheon and Incheon area in World Embracing Youths quitting glue-sniffing. In addition, he successfully led a campaign to pressure glue manufacturers to stop using toluene, an element used in industrial glues that has a high potential for abuse and addiction. As a result, since 2008 when Sung-jin launched World Embracing Youths the number of glue sniffing cases in Bucheon and Incheon has dropped by 75%. Most notably, there was not a single case of glue-sniffing reported in 2014 as of May.
Building on his early success, Sung-jin is in the early stage of spreading the work of World Embracing Youths to certified juvenile delinquents protection facilities nationwide. As a first step, Sung-jin is creating apprenticeship opportunities at World Embracing Youths. The most experienced staff person plays the role of a parent and relatively less experience staff members who are in training play the role of uncles and aunts in the family. Also graduates of World Embracing Youths work as support staff and play the role of big brothers and sisters. The staff and graduates in training have replicated the model in Bucheon, and plan to do so in other cities and train others in the same way. Furthermore, Sung-jin is working to get World Embracing Youths and group home clusters incubated by it certified as a tier-6 private youth protection centers. In the current juvenile justice system in Korea, there is the range of 1-10 dispositions after the juvenile is convicted by a judge: youths who received 1-5 are sent to their home; 7-10 are sent to juvenile detention home; 6 are sent to the certified youth rehabilitation facilities (this is called “tier-6 youth protection facilities”). As Tier-6 youth protection centers accommodate juvenile delinquents, whose cases are severe but don’t have home to return and get supports, for 6-24 months as they come out of the court system, the centers have easy and sustained access to young offenders through the court system, group home clusters incubated by it. Also the centers get financial support for 80% of personnel cost from local courts and the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Sung-jin’s success is receiving great attention from Korean society. With interest and support from many, Sung-jin is seeking investments to spread his solutions nationwide through Korea’s first Social Impact Bond (SIB). A feasibility study conducted in partnership with SK and Catholic University demonstrated that if World Embracing Youths and its network of partners accommodate 10% of the 3,500 juvenile delinquents coming out of the Incheon district juvenile court every year and lowers their recidivism rates from 38% to 5% (5% based on the past eight years of achievements of World Embracing Youths), it would save society approximately $17 million in court and welfare cost. This is one of the first feasibility studies in Korea that showed the high potential of SIB and has triggered a series of studies that support the creation of SIB. Sung-jin is in conversations with the national government possibly to be selected as Korea’s first SIB project later in the year.
Sung-jin was a “troubled” kid himself –much like the juvenile delinquents at World Embracing Youths. His family lived in poverty and he was often raised by his six sisters while his parents lived apart from the children to earn money for the family. Sung-jin withdrew from school life and struggled with little emotional support from his family. However, his perspective and attitude towards life changed after a teacher trusted in him and supported him unconditionally through his rough years. This transformative experience became the foundation of his life-long belief that “at-risk youths are not innately bad. They are just hurt. Once what’s missing in their lives is provided, they can live a fruitful life.”
Since the unexpected passing of his father when Sung-jin was 18, he has been committed to enabling hard-working people escape poverty. Through his own financial struggles, he recognized that others also suffer in similar ways and became devoted to addressing the structural issues that perpetuate poverty. During his college years, he witnessed the meager working conditions of child laborers which motivated him to support labor unions in their strategic battles. After graduating from college, Sung-jin continued to endeavor for social change through organizing progressive young artists to create and distribute socially-oriented and accessible artworks. Furthermore, he founded an entertainment agency for the professionalization of his cultural activities, and discovered his entrepreneurial talents in the process.
Despite significant business success at one point, Sung-jin was not satisfied with his life, feeling that he was not contributing to improving society. In pursuit of purpose and meaning, Sung-jin became a pastor and started working at a church in a small town in Bucheon. As he met a group of juvenile delinquents who attended at his church, he found that most of them do not have a home to return and that led them to constant delinquencies. Sung-jin remodeled his church to house them and recruited volunteers and social workers who can live with the youths and become like a family to them. While working closely with the troubled youths, Sung-jin discovered that their positive change in a family-like environment was affecting their peers and started developing his community-based, group-home cluster model.
Sung-jin’s success for the past six years has attracted various partners and supporters who believe in the efficacy and potential of his model in preventing juvenile delinquency and reducing youth recidivism rates. Since 2013, individuals and institutions who are searching for working solutions to the issue have reached out to World Embracing Youths, including: a juvenile court judge at the Incheon District Court who helped create a partnership between World Embracing Youths and the court; the mayor of Bucheon who is cooperating with Sung-jin for launching youth legal aid centers to reduce youth recidivism in the city; a professor who helped introduce the concept of SIB to Korea and led the feasibility study for World Embracing Youths as one of the first SIB projects in Korea, and; an impact investor who is advising and investing in World Embracing Youths to establish it as a new model for tier-6 facilities nationwide. Sung-jin is using this momentum to redefine the juvenile justice system by assigning a new perspective and role to various stakeholders working with juvenile delinquents.