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Faculty & Staff Honors

Georgia State Researchers Receive $700,000 Grant to Test Yoga-Based Program for Youth in Juvenile Justice System

Researchers at Georgia State University School of Public Health  received a grant of more than $700,000 to develop and test a mindfulness-based yoga program to provide young people in juvenile justice facilities with coping skills and reduce the recidivism rate.

Dr. Ashli Owen-Smith, assistant professor of health management and policy, is the principal investigator on the three-year project, which is funded by a National Institutes of Health grant.

[Photo:Dr. Ashli Owen-Smith]

Dr. Owen-Smith and her fellow researchers will work with male youth in four Georgia juvenile justice facilities that offer yoga classes that routinely have waiting lists.

Dr. Owen-Smith’s goal is to modify the classes so they are designed for young offenders who have experienced trauma, including techniques that may help address symptoms of post-traumatic stress, improve self-awareness and self-control, and provide other benefits intended to reduce the likelihood that participants will commit a new act that could return them to the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.

“Many previous studies have documented the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions for people with a variety of health issues, including eating disorders, breast cancer, chronic pain and epilepsy, and those that also include yoga postures may be particularly helpful for people who have experienced traumatic events,”Dr. Owen-Smith said. “These studies have shown that mindfulness-based yoga among incarcerated adults can have a positive effect on aggression, stress, depression and sleep. We hope to explore whether these classes are helpful for incarcerated youth as well.”

Young people with a history of exposure to trauma are more likely to commit acts that result in arrest, take part in more serious types of “delinquent behavior” and to be re-arrested compared to those who have not, Dr. Owen-Smith said. Other studies have found that more than 90 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have experienced what experts call “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs)  such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse or mental illness in a family member or having a family member who is incarcerated.

There are other interventions offered at juvenile justice facilities intended to reduce repeat offenses, but few are designed to address trauma-related symptoms. Other researchers have found the reduction in recidivism stemming from such programs ranges from 7 percent to 26 percent.

“We need more ‘tools in our toolbox’ for improving health, educational, vocational and interpersonal outcomes for these youth,” Dr. Owen-Smith said. “Our hope is that, if these types of programs are helpful, they can be integrated into the treatment plans for youth across a wide variety of juvenile justice facilities.”