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Seeking to Intervene With Young Adults Before Crime Becomes a Way of Life

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

Original Source


Almost every time he was released from jail, Wilfredo Hierrezuelo stumbled back in, once after an arrest for dealing drugs, another time after he assaulted a school safety guard. By the time he walked out of Rikers Island in October 2008 at age 23, he had spent about seven years of his life behind bars.

He tried breaking that cycle, signing on with agencies that were supposed to connect him with employers. But one agency, he said, focused too narrowly on finding a temporary job, and another, in the Bronx, simply “wasn’t for me.”

Last month, he began his fourth program, a city-financed pilot project that started in September in neighborhoods in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn where large numbers of people are sent to prison every year. In those neighborhoods, the city estimates, there are about 4,000 young people who have been convicted of a crime and would be eligible for such a program.

The odds against people like Mr. Hierrezuelo staying out of jail are long: 41 percent of prisoners released from Rikers Island end up being arrested again within a year and 34 percent end up back in the jail, according to the city’s Department of Correction.

In the basement of a Brooklyn community center, Mr. Hierrezuelo listened to Derek Freeman tell a story of escape from the cycle.

“I came here sick,” said Mr. Freeman, who has a drug-dealing conviction and was one of the first participants in the program, called the NYC Justice Corps. He was disrespectful when he arrived and was almost thrown out of the program, he said. But now, Mr. Freeman is leading a team of young men who are weatherizing a nearby home. “The work is good work,” he said.

Mr. Hierrezuelo reacted cautiously to what he heard. “It sounds good,” he said, as he played a video game during a break in the morning lectures. “I have a son. Something’s got to change.”

Determining whether Justice Corps is more effective than other programs will take time, but organizers said that a number of features, including a requirement that participants work in their own communities, made it different and more promising. And they said they were heartened by early numbers that showed an 85 percent retention rate through the first five months.

All the participants so far have been black or Hispanic, from 18 to 24 years old, and all but 15 have been men. Most are referred by parole and probation officers. Of the 119 original participants in the six-month program, 18 have left, either because they were rearrested, had entered drug treatment programs or were thrown out for violating the program’s code of conduct.

Some of those cases illustrate the difficulties of pulling young people away from their criminal pasts. Braulio Martinez, 19, already had a juvenile robbery conviction when he was arrested in the subway in November and accused of stealing a laptop. He started in Justice Corps in December, but the following month, Mr. Martinez, a self-assured, aspiring animator and poet, was sent back to Rikers Island for violating his probation terms. He is awaiting trial on the charge of theft.

In an interview at the jail, he said he did not steal the laptop, was tired of being on probation and regretted having to leave the Justice Corps program. Mr. Martinez hoped to go back.

“They take you to the water,” he said. “You decide whether to drink.”

Organizers say they must reach men like Mr. Martinez early, before jail becomes a habit.

“We’re tackling one of the hardest issues in our society,” said Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This is a time when young people get off track.”

“We’re trying to turn people who are growing up in poverty and engaged in some sort of antisocial behavior and make them pro-social in some aspect of their lives,” Mr. Travis said.

The college, the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity and the Department of Correction are partners in the Justice Corps.

The Justice Corps is a hybrid of the national youth corps movement, the Depression-era program that put young people to work on community projects, and more traditional post-prison programs that help former inmates find work, shelter and education.

Most important, the organizers said, young people are reintroduced to communities that in some cases they damaged.

“This program really appreciates a sense of self-value and worth,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services who oversees the agency financing the program. “It’s such an important thing for people to appreciate you’re part of a larger community and making a contribution.”

The Justice Corps sponsors tasks like painting a community center; participants are paid $8.50 to $9.50 an hour while they search for longer-term employment.

Such transitional jobs are a feature of many programs for people who have been in prison or otherwise in trouble with the law.

A continuing study of one such program in New York, the Center for Employment Opportunities, which provides technical assistance to the Justice Corps, suggests mixed results. So far, it has found that while the program significantly reduced recidivism and initially generated a large increase in employment, by the end of a year, participants were no more likely to have regular work than people who were not in the program, according to Dan Bloom of MDRC, a nonpartisan social policy research organization that is conducting the study. Mr. Bloom said the Justice Corps might benefit from its emphasis on young adults. “If you can change someone’s trajectory,” he said, “the logic of it makes sense.”

The program is also seeking to distinguish itself by offering participants full-time work in so-called green-collar jobs.

Susan Tucker, who helped conceive the program and who is the director of the After Prison Initiative at the Open Society Institute, said the focus on emerging sectors like energy efficiency contrasted with the “uninspiring” nature of many post-prison programs, where people released from jail “get training for jobs that don’t exist or that they’re barred from holding.”

Still, the program’s work goals may be a challenge to achieve. Participants in a similar program in New Orleans have struggled to find scarce jobs in environmental fields.

Regardless, those participating in the Justice Corps program said that at least they saw the potential for a fresh start.

Jaguar Loftin, 19, who said he had been arrested on a weapons charge, wrapped insulation around pipes in a Brooklyn home on a recent morning and said he saw a future in weatherization.

Yordanis Jusino, 25, was among a crew of men and women a few weeks ago preparing the Claremont Neighborhood Center in the South Bronx for coats of fresh paint.

Ms. Jusino spent seven years in state prison for attempted murder. Before that, she lived in a group home. She has found intermittent work since her release, in construction and for a company that does telephone surveys.

For many of the young people in the Justice Corps, participation is required by their parole or probation officers. But Ms. Jusino said she volunteered, hoping the program would open new doors, perhaps helping her achieve a dream of working with children whose parents are incarcerated. And indeed, she recently found a part-time job with a group called Exodus Transitional Community, another post-incarceration program, mentoring the children of people in prison.

But it has been difficult, she said, “coming home to a society that, all they care about is your past.”

“They do all these background checks, credit checks,” she said. “What you do now is pretty much irrelevant. It’s just hard.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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Justice Corps, MDRC