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These Approaches Help Young Fathers Leaving the Criminal Justice System

Becoming a father for the first time can be difficult for anyone, but when you do so in your teens or early 20s and have been incarcerated, it can be overwhelming. The right supports — stable housing, reliable networks, ties to employment, knowing how to build skills in fatherhood and healthy relationships — are essential.

This was certainly true for 22-year-old James* and 20-year-old Marcus*. Both became fathers before their incarceration; both wanted to be the best dads they could be, and both needed help upon release to do so.

After being released from prison, James joined the T.O.R.I. Program, which offered family reunification classes and employment support. During the 12-month program he learned new skills to provide for and nurture his daughter, like how to appropriately resolve conflict and effectively co-parent.

Marcus enrolled in the RIDGE Project while in prison, which offered training to help build character, leadership and job preparedness skills. Upon release, he continued to work with his caseworker to complete job applications and prepare for interviews. Within weeks, he found a job and an apartment.  

T.O.R.I and RIDGE are both faith-based reentry programs funded by federal, state, local and private funds. Each helps young fathers build their parenting and relationships skills, find employment and change the course of their lives. T.O.R.I. was founded in Texas in 2005 to provide holistic wraparound services for men and women after incarceration. Since its inception, T.O.R.I. has provided assistance in getting housing, employment, education and health care, among other services, to more than 10,000 fathers and mothers.

The RIDGE Project, with offices throughout Ohio, was co-founded by Ron Tijerina following his own experience as an incarcerated father. RIDGE provides classes on fatherhood, leadership, healthy relationships and job preparedness inside prisons. It also provide referrals for housing, mental health and addiction recovery upon release. RIDGE has served more than 14,000 individuals since its inception in 2000.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded 103 fatherhood grants, nine of which have focused on reentering fathers. Additionally, since 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice has funded 16 fatherhood/reentry grants. These investments come at a time where more than 5 million children (7 percent of all children under 18) live with a parent who went to jail or prison. And about 92 percent of all incarcerated parents are fathers; some estimate that as many as 30 percent of incarcerated teen males are also fathers.  

As many state and federal programs continue to strategically invest in employment and parenting supports for returning young fathers, promising approaches have begun to emerge. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse has developed resources for human service professionals who support fathers and families, including those impacted by incarceration. Their Responsible Fatherhood Toolkit, which includes modules on working with incarcerated and returning fathers, suggests that service providers:

  • Offer pre-release assistance with child support, education and job training to prepare dads for reentry.
  • Encourage dads to write letters to their children on a regular basis, create books or art for their children, and read a book to their child, either over the phone or via audio or video recording.
  • Show fathers the value in developing a working relationship with their child’s mother and provide them with skills to improve this relationship.
  • Connect with the mother and family before a father’s release.
  • Provide relationship skills classes for couples when possible, and link fathers to community services upon release.
  • Develop relationships with local employers to help dads with employment opportunities.
  • Counsel men to be upfront with potential employers about their criminal record.

Programs like RIDGE and T.O.R.I. are providing important support services to young fathers and their children — to help break the cycle of generational incarceration. They provide parenting and healthy relationships skills training, job readiness and placement support, mentoring and case management to maintain communication channels within families during incarceration and grow them upon release.  

*Names changed

Eugene Schneeberg, is a senior fatherhood & families technical specialist at ICF, where he works on technical assistance and outreach activities related to Responsible Fatherhood, Prisoner Reentry and workforce programs. He is the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

Arizona, Other States Need Resentencing Guidelines for JLWOP Youth

The current law of the land prohibits the use of mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders due to Miller v. Alabama. That case’s standards also apply to offenders previously given natural life sentences for homicide offenses because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. It is unclear, however, how these important changes in law will translate into actual practices.

Some of the practical challenges associated with these changes in law pertain to the interpretation of specific standards governing juvenile sentencing and release decision-making processes, e.g., transient immaturity, irreparable corruption and meaningful opportunities for release.

These standards address important principles identified by the Supreme Court in support of its reasoning as to why sentencing juveniles to life requires different considerations from adults: a) juveniles have diminished culpability because of their developmental and neurological immaturity; b) juveniles have more of a capacity for change than adults. Yet minimal attention has been devoted in Arizona toward providing decision-making authorities with guidelines for implementing these special juvenile considerations.

Twenty-nine states had life sentences for juveniles without the opportunity for parole when the Miller case was decided. Arizona was one of those states, so the 34 juveniles given LWOP sentences before the Miller decision need to be resentenced.

Arizona did not commute its juvenile natural life sentences to indeterminate-life terms of imprisonment as did 17 other jurisdictions. As a consequence, the courts in Arizona must implement the individualized sentencing process prescribed in Miller when the 34 become eligible for resentencing.

In the Miller decision, the court was not banning life sentence for juvenile offenders, but equated a life sentence with a death sentence, which means life sentences for juveniles now require the kinds of individualized determinations that are required for death sentences. However, a number of legal scholars have questioned whether Arizona and other states will implement the intent and spirit of the standards governing these individualized sentencing processes.

The legal officials who will participate in these resentencing and future sentencing procedures for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses are expected to take into account whether the offense reflected the offender’s transient immaturity or the juvenile’s irreparable corruption. While many expert witnesses and other consulting professionals are aware of the contributions of immaturity to various forms of behavior, there is a lack of credible evidence in the scientific literature on how to make valid recommendations about whether or not a juvenile is irreparably depraved or unlikely to change. As a consequence, lawyers in Arizona and other jurisdictions are struggling with how to develop effective strategies for presenting evidence to dispute claims of irreparable corruption.

The Miller decision also has implications for how parole boards and other releasing authorities insure that juveniles are afforded meaningful opportunities for release. In order to address this new legal requirement, some states have developed specialized criteria for guiding releasing authorities in the implementation of Miller requirements.

Thus far, Arizona has not followed the lead of California and other jurisdictions that modified their parole procedures and criteria for determining a juvenile lifer’s suitability for release. Arizona has 74 juveniles who were sentenced to 25 years to life. They will be eligible for release by the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency under Miller, but not all of them will have access to legal counsel to assist them in making a case of their suitability for release. The availability of legal counsel in these parole processes also will vary from state to state.

In Arizona, the Arizona Justice Project is a nonprofit group of lawyers and volunteers who are developing strategies in conjunction with the Sandra Day O’Connor Post-Conviction Law Clinic and faculty and students from the Office of Offender Diversion and Sentencing Solutions (OODSS) in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University to assist inmates seeking release pursuant to Miller requirements. The Arizona Justice Project “reviews and assists in cases of actual innocence or cases in which a manifest injustice has occurred.”

The pilot project with the OODSS was developed to assist lawyers working with the wrongly convicted in helping them address their reentry concerns. The student social workers in this pilot program not only provide supportive services to inmates experiencing reentry difficulties, but also assist inmates at their release hearings by presenting responsive release plans that address relevant risks and needs. This strategy, employed by the Arizona Justice Project for collaborating with faculty and students from the School of Social Work, is an interim solution to a pressing problem.

In 2018, the number of inmates in Arizona who will become eligible for consideration for release will begin to exceed the capacity of the pilot project. This project and other legal assistance programs serving these offenders will have to make difficult decisions in selecting cases for their assistance. This is unfortunate because the release planning provided by the reentry team has helped assuage a number of concerns from the defense community about releasing inmates who were disconnected from family and other relevant supports needed for a successful reintegration in society. Clearly, advocates in Arizona and other jurisdictions need to push for funding of this and other kinds of initiatives to work on the translation of Miller principles into meaningful opportunities for release of juvenile lifers.

The pilot project has already produced positive outcomes in addressing reentry and release planning issues. In addition, it is demonstrating the importance of promoting similar forms of interprofessional training with a focus on principles of holistic defense in sentencing juveniles from indigent backgrounds to a LWOP sentence. Indeed, similar interprofessional training programs are needed for preparing social workers and lawyers in the sentencing of juveniles in states that have maintained LWOP sentences for irreparably corrupt youth.

Thus far, the federal government and most states have not identified special funding for the purposes of training releasing authorities, lawyers, judges and other professionals in how to develop effective strategies for responding to Miller requirements. An equally important concern is in the future sentencing of juveniles convicted of homicide offenses. For these youth, they deserve to have their judges have clear guidelines for interpreting Miller standards. These youth also should have public defenders and mitigation specialists who have access to the kinds of training and supports currently available to mitigation professionals in capital cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court is requiring that given the seriousness of LWOP sentences that practitioners must connect the seriousness of a youth’s offense to special circumstances of youth. In order to avoid claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in these matters, the juvenile justice community must take affirmative steps to make sure that lawyers and mitigation specialists are prepared to develop and present evidence of “transient immaturity” in making a case for leniency when youth are convicted of heinous offenses.

José B. Ashford is a professor of social work and doctoral program in sociology. He is also the director of the Office of Offender Diversion and Sentencing Solutions and of the graduate certificate on criminal sentencing and sentencing advocacy. He is an affiliate faculty member in the schools of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Program on Law and Behavioral Science, and School of Justice and Social Inquiry.

From Detention to Graduation: Examining Role of Education in U.S. Juvenile Justice System

At 7 a.m., teenagers are scurrying to dress and head to class. There are no parents or older siblings nearby to push them out of bed and out the door. And the commute isn’t long — just a short walk from prison bed to classroom.

But these young men at the MacLaren Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, are going someplace — and that’s a start, state educators and justice officials say.

The students meander from four different buildings, depending on their status — some as young as 15 and others who were sentenced as adults but placed in juvenile facilities — down long corridors to a central school.

“MacLaren is a regular school, and if you were to walk in you’d think you’re in a high school hallway,” said Deborah Martin, senior policy advisor for community services at the Oregon Youth Authority.

The students get the usual array of math, English and science. But MacLaren and most of Oregon’s other youth detention facilities also offer the chance to learn a vocation. An advanced auto mechanics class ties to a partnership with a local community college. Classes teach latticework and woodworking. Some students learn wildlife preservation and take advanced classes in fighting wildfires common to the Pacific Northwest.

The most advanced students, usually in their late teens or early 20s who have spent years in the facility and are ready to transition into the public sector, are allowed to work with local firefighters out in the fields.

“As a state, we’ve made a conscious decision that we can’t just give them a high school education, but give them a vocation and a chance to succeed in the work world,” Martin said. “For most of these kids, something wasn’t quite right about their life — that’s why they came to us. We want to help them get back on track.”

Oregon is considered at the forefront of efforts to improve the transition from juvenile detention back to public schools or into the workforce, according to education and juvenile justice experts.

In addition to schoolwork, the state has set up a system in which each teenager entering the juvenile justice system is assigned a parole officer who will stick with them until they exit the system.

The officers serve as case managers, arranging counseling, mental and substance abuse treatment if needed and, working with the teens, teachers and their families, devise an education and support plan as soon as they enter the system.

Transition officers

Additionally, Oregon provides some juveniles with transitional parole officers whose job is helping the teens and young adults in their first reentry months. What began as a pilot program four years ago with a single officer has developed into a statewide assistance program that has put about 100 teens into the workforce and helped many more return to the classroom.

Jim Kramer, chief of parole and probation for the Oregon Youth Authority, said transition officers stay in specific regions so they know about job opportunities and can build contacts in local school systems. They mostly support youth 17 and older.

All students leaving detention facilities in the state must be admitted into local schools. But “let’s face it, in some of these schools our students are going back to places in class with some of their victims, so there is some pushback,” Kramer said. “Our transition POs work to soften that landing and work with the school and student to come up with a transition plan.”

National trend to reduce recidivism

Oregon’s attempt to ease the transition from lockdown to society is part of a larger national trend that experts say is tied to a steep drop in juvenile crime and recidivism.

In the past two decades, the population of young people held in juvenile facilities or other forms of detention has been cut in half nationwide, according to a study by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focusing solely on youth and their families.

The figures are encouraging, juvenile justice experts say, and show that more states are using data and lessons learned from comprehensive studies (such as one from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice in 2016) as blueprints for diversion and treatment programs that keep teens in school and ultimately make them far less likely to reoffend.

But the success of diversion programs has created a new reality for educators and justice professionals: Those who are locked up now are sometimes more hardened, more difficult to reach and present a challenge to educate and treat before and after they reenter society.

“What the data shows is that as incarceration rates have gone down, the population still incarcerated are higher risk and higher need, and recidivism rates still tend to be pretty high because it’s a challenging group to work with,” said Josh Weber, program director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York City.

“It requires a more nuanced reading of data and a more sophisticated understanding of risk placement and how to tailor education programs to the individual,” Weber said. “The juvenile field has done a good job, much better than the adult system, of keeping kids from coming back into the system. But I think we’re still struggling with developing enough programs for mental health and substance abuse.”

Recidivism and dropping out of school  

Educating teens held in facilities is crucial to helping them return to the classroom when they are released, experts said. But that’s not always easy, in large part because of circumstances students can’t control. Some teens are in locked facilities for only a few days or weeks, making it difficult for teachers to learn the best ways to help them learn. Nearly all students can be pulled from classes for court appearances or other reasons related to their legal issues.

“It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”

In all, two-thirds of teens released from juvenile facilities never return to school and “find themselves far behind their peers,” according to a study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focusing on disparities in the justice system — adult and juvenile.

“A huge problem, and I’m not sure it’s talked about enough, is the lack of transfer of academic credits when students go from a facility back into a local school system,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “When they are going to school in a facility, they think they are getting credit, and they should be. But when they go back to their old school — or sometimes it’s even worse because they are forced to a new school away from where they live — they come to realize the school districts won’t accept those credits.”

That leads to frustration for the students and increases dropout rates, Burdick said.

National guidelines and action plans

Several states and local jurisdictions have implemented new rules to increase the chances that students graduate when leaving detention facilities. For example, New York — pushed into action by a lawsuit and consent decree — has created “credit equivalency charts” that provide uniform standards for integrating students back into the classroom. That includes efforts to make sure students are enrolled in schools in the same district in which they and their family live, increasing the odds they stay in school.

Virginia and Washington state have introduced legislation that speeds up the time between students leaving detention and being enrolled in a local school system.

The federal government has also created guidelines in recent years, aimed at smoothing the transition from detention to graduation. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines for disciplining students, part of an effort to keep teens in school and out of the justice system.

The guidelines stressed the need for strong partnerships among mental health agencies, counseling, law enforcement and school systems — designed to help divert students who might be sent to the juvenile justice system into counseling or specialized school programs. But the guidelines also focus on helping schools and students adapt as they leave lockdown facilities and return to public schools.

In  2016, the Department of Education released a “reentry toolkit” that provided tips and resources for local jurisdictions to provide services for students returning to the classroom.

Another program designed to help both adults and juveniles reenter society, the 2015 federal Second Chance Act, overcame efforts by the Trump administration to slash its budget by 30 percent as of press time. On July 14, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to provide full funding for the project at $68 million with support from both parties, according to committee member Scott Taylor, a Republican representing Virginia. The vote is seen as a key step in the budgeting process.

There is still much work ahead, said Weber of the Council of State Governments. States must do a better job gathering and analyzing case data that will help them craft more effective education programs to help teens graduate high school when they leave detention, he said.

“The good news is that the field is more aware of the need for having a more robust reentry program, and the planning starts much earlier,” Weber said. “It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”

Despite the difficulties, Weber and others said there are several concrete steps jurisdictions can take to improve the chances teens graduate after incarceration. First and foremost is having mental health and substance abuse treatment programs inside the facilities and in the school systems.

“We’re struck by how few states have a dedicated mental health or substance abuse system,” he said. “The default in many instances is to handle those problems as criminal justice issues, and that’s not where they belong.”

Last year several groups focusing on juvenile justice and education issues combined to create a detailed, 10-point blueprint to aid reentry. The study and guidelines, created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Bar Association Center of Children and the Law, the Juvenile Law Center and others, provides concrete examples and recommendations for states and local jurisdictions to follow.

Still, the success of any program depends on states dedicating money and time to ensure students have the best chance of graduating once they leave detention facilities, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center.

“There are software programs available, lots of innovative ways to engage students and tailor programs to individual needs,” Levick said. “But there has to be the will to do that.

“What’s always frustrated me is that these kids in locked facilities should have the same exact opportunities as kids on the outside. Yet we don’t hold facilities accountable for delivering the same quality of education. We have to really change that mindset if we want to see better outcomes.”

Trying to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline

The 2014 U.S. Department of Education’s “Guiding Principles A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline” articulates the federal government’s acknowledgement of inequity when it comes to school discipline:

“Nationwide, data collected by our Office for Civil Rights show that youths of color and youths with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions and expulsions. For example, data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although students who receive special education services represent 12 percent of students in the country, they make up 19 percent of students suspended in school, 20 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspension once ... and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.”

While the guidelines are nonregulatory, and “the extent to which states and school districts implement the suggestions in this resource guide is a matter for state and local school officials to decide,” it does provide 13 specific action steps designed to reduce suspensions and other out-of-school referrals.

For example:

  • “Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.” This action item names groups of youth who are often disenfranchised — from those with disabilities to LBGTQ youth and young people of color. Specific goals may include reducing numbers of suspensions and expulsions and law enforcement referrals, and “identifying and connecting at-risk youths to tailored supports, or increasing the availability of quality mental health supports available for students.”
  • “Train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner so as not to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, or at-risk students.”

“Remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that alternative settings provide academic instruction, and return students to class as soon as possible.”  

Book Review: The Art of Holistic Security

We live in a world of best practices. Some call themselves evidence-based best practices (EBP), some are simply promising practices based on evidence from somewhere, and a few are practices grounded in evidence-based research (EBR).

Confusing, eh? Part of the confusion stems from the difficulty and complexity of achieving successful outcomes with youth in custody. In part, the striking effectiveness of recent juvenile detention reforms, particularly JDAI, has removed from secure custody those youth who can thrive in nonsecure alternatives, leaving behind the most at-risk and troubled youth. Confusing has now jumped to complicated and challenging.

Evidence-based practices with their concerns about model fidelity sometimes sound too formulaic for practitioners. The flipside of evidence-based practice is case law-driven practice. Here, author D.L. Reed does a good job of using case law and juvenile rights as justification for certain practices, especially grievances.

If evidence-based practice and case law tell us what to do, the ongoing challenge is how to do those things. The realities of daily life in secure custody settings rarely lend themselves to precise problem-solving, and the reactions of youth never seem to follow the script from staff training handouts.

We continue to search for some field guide that acknowledges that what we tell new detention workers to expect rarely happens, so, in Boy Scouting parlance, we need to be prepared — prepared to respond quickly and effectively to fluid circumstances and changing situations that more accurately characterize secure custody. So, trial and error moves the field slowly in the direction of progress despite the frequent disconnects between new models and their outcomes with youth.

Successful secure custody practices are more an art than a science, and the scarcity of effective, safe and humane conditions of confinement serves as evidence that the art still needs substantial help. In that regard, this book is a basic primer of understandable and useful insights that are helpful to practitioners in implementing effective programs and services.

Reed uses long-standing and straightforward concepts to connect what and why with how questions. Information and explanations follow essential theories of human behavior to support his positive approach to physical and emotional security. While many of the references are to anecdotal research and secondary sources, the utility of the book is just that: The content starts with the assumption that the reader knows very little about the theory and practice underlying Reed’s model. Juvenile care workers sometimes have formal education, sometimes in related fields, and sometimes beyond a year or two of full-time study. For these individuals, the book is a constructive resource.

One example of its utility is the description of a behavior management system. Reed provides a basic introduction of behavioral principles that serves as a refresher for new and veteran staff members. More importantly, he presents the information using multiple adult learning styles. The graduated rewards/privileges continuum is a visual representation of a comprehensive and expansive system that serves as a workable tool for immediate adaptation in a variety of different facilities.

The same applies to the discussions about de-escalation and safety. Appropriately, the book also contains a section on reentry. Without the need to know the intricacies of evidence-based research and references, direct-care staff still have a great affinity for strategies that make sense, are understandable and are effective; and these are precise descriptions of Reed’s book.

Other sample forms and data-collecting materials are also excellent, and the uncomplicated explanations of them raise questions as to why the reader would not implement them immediately. The topics left uncovered suggest the need for a volume 2, and experienced practitioners can generate their own list of deficiencies.

But that is not the point. This book is positive, encouraging, hopeful and above all else relevant. It moves the field forward, emphasizing how to apply Edward P. Mulvey and Carol A. Schubert's concepts of content and process (see Pathways to Desistance research). Employing the wisdom and techniques in this book will improve any secure custody practice regardless of its current status. To the juvenile detention practitioner, you will do better after reading it.

David Roush, Ph.D., has been active in juvenile detention and corrections for more than 45 years. As a facility superintendent, he earned four national awards for innovation and excellence, two from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. A specialist on conditions of confinement, he conducted compliance monitoring for the U.S. Department of Justice. While at Michigan State University, he taught classes on juvenile detention, conducted research and coordinated federally funded training and technical assistance to juvenile justice agencies.

The Harsh Conditions of Prison Create Mental Illness And Must Be Reformed

When I first came home from serving a very long prison sentence, my greatest concern was how deeply that dreary place affected me mentally. Of course, I thought I was normal, but I was uncertain because of the toll I had witnessed the cruel environment take on so many men.

I have reached the conclusion, based on my 15-year imprisonment from age 20 to 35, that many incarcerated persons develop mental illness because of the subhuman conditions they are held captive in.

By now many of us know the numbers and have read statistic after statistic that attempt to explain how mental illness runs rampant throughout U.S. prisons. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illnesses. In 2015 The Atlantic reported 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, and the numbers goes on and on.

What’s always interesting to me is that most people assume that the men and women in prison who are mentally ill arrived there with some form of pre-existing mental condition, attributing these numbers to inadequate health care and disgraceful treatment of those with mental illness. While that may be true in some cases, what most people on the outside don’t understand is how the dismal, subhuman prison environment can literally drive you crazy. The inhumane conditions are intentionally designed to sedate the mind, dull the senses and pacify prisoners into a comatose state.

One of the damnedest challenges surviving prison as a whole person is the relentless battle to maintain your sanity in a cold, grey concrete and steel sensory deprivation chamber. A chamber filled with people who could not care less if you lived or died: people convicted of being thieves, rapists, killers, white supremacists, black nationalists, child molesters, pimps, meth-heads, crackheads, dope fiends, prostitutes, scheming and conniving con men and a wild, lawless, heartless, fatherless, desensitized, lost generation of young men.

These dungeons, labeled “correctional facilities,” are supposed to “rehabilitate” convicted persons and prepare them to return to society. They are designed to break you. How, under these extreme circumstances, do we expect a person to maintain their sanity? If we dull an incarcerated person’s senses in order to control the situation, how on earth can we expect anyone to come out whole?

And then there’s segregation: a prison within a prison. It is its own monster, and the intense isolation can drive a person to the brink of their sanity. I was once forced to spend 30 days in an isolation chamber in segregation in a maximum-security prison. It was sealed with a steel door so heavy it trapped the air inside and was so soundproof that I might as well have been deaf. When the 30 days ended and the prison guards opened my isolation chamber, the stale, dank air that rushed into my cell from the gallery was so refreshing that the breeze smelling like paint and steel had the audacity to be caressing. All sounds, smells and light hit me at the same time, giving me a sensory overload so strong it made me dizzy and nauseated.

This is not rehabilitation. This is torture. And this subhuman treatment is happening in prisons across the United States. How much of this inhumane treatment can a sane person take before it begins to affect him mentally and emotionally?

Truthfully, because of how intricately prisons are designed for sensory deprivation, I believe that the very environment itself causes great depression that leads to other mental issues. There is much talk and a movement toward reform, but how can an institution designed for punishment be reformed when its entire infrastructure is intended to depress the mind and dull the senses?

If our goal as a decent society is to rehabilitate, then we must oblige our elected officials to abandon lazy, twisted and medieval imprisonment practices. They must be urged to review the humane 21st-century ideas that greatly reduce the number of people with mental illness the physical prison environment produces.

Having paid their debt to society, people, many of whom are family members, are reentering our communities needing a real opportunity to be productive. However, they tremendously struggle to do so because their mental faculties have been intentionally aggravated by being forced to survive in a high-stress, abnormal world devoid of human sensitivity. Prisons, as they currently exist, must be abolished.

Omar Yamini is the executive director of Determined to Be Upright, a nonprofit that helps youth identify and deflect harmful influences. His book is “What's Wrong With You! What You, Your Children and Our Students Need to Know About: My 15 Year Imprisonment from Age 20-35.”

Navigating the Path to a Successful Career: Providing Support for Trauma-Exposed Youth i

Juvenile Law Center

Youth placed in juvenile justice institutions face a fundamental obstacle in their career pathway: They have been removed from their communities and lack access to the full array of educational and job opportunities available to their peers. Accordingly, the best long-term solution to the many barriers to career success “disconnected” youth face is to keep them out of the juvenile justice system entirely — and, in particular, out of juvenile detention and correctional institutions.

Indeed, although the goal underlying the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation — meaning that when youth leave the system they will be better off than when they entered, ready to gain employment and be contributing members to society — most juvenile facilities do little to prepare youth for adulthood and fail to properly treat the issues contributing to problematic behaviors.

In particular, many facilities are ill-equipped to provide appropriate treatment for the roughly 75 percent of youth in their care who were previously victims of violent trauma. Without treatment, this trauma can manifest as behavioral health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse, all of which are present at rates two to three times more for children in the juvenile justice system. Moreover, the poor conditions in juvenile facilities can often exacerbate these conditions, leading to further mental health problems. These issues are not new, but any proper response requires a thoughtful systemwide effort.

That’s exactly what Bob Listenbee plans to achieve. Previously serving as chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia for 16 years, Listenbee was later appointed by President Barack Obama as administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Now, back in Philadelphia as a fellow with the Stoneleigh Foundation, Listenbee hopes to build bridges between the various justice system players to create a comprehensive support system for youth. He recently shared some of his innovative ideas with us.

Under Listenbee’s leadership, OJJDP issued a report finding that trauma will continue to manifest and disrupt a youth’s educational and emotional development until properly addressed. The report emphasized the implementation of “trauma-informed care,” a systemwide approach that recognizes the unique needs of youth who have experienced trauma during childhood. To effectively address trauma, ensuring it does not contribute to later involvement in the justice system, immediate intervention is necessary. Programs that provide counseling and support to young people experiencing domestic violence or gang violence at the moment of the impact have been proven effective.

Too often, trauma left untreated can manifest into involvement in the justice system. Rather than criminalizing the behaviors and incarcerating young people, further exacerbating the trauma they experience, effective programs divert young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs. When youth require more supervision than just treatment, we must make sure systems provide adequate treatment programs that are individualized to meet the youth’s needs.

In contrast, if trauma is left unaddressed, youth are unlikely to fully benefit from other rehabilitation programs such as job training and internships. Because of this, trauma-informed care must be included alongside other career programming so that youth can begin properly preparing gainful employment upon release. If trauma-informed care and job training are implemented successfully, our juvenile justice system can become a real instrument for positive change and rehabilitation.

Listenbee has repeatedly emphasized that just having the answers isn’t enough. The real challenge is implementing these changes across the country so we can start healing our youth as fast as possible. Addressing the root causes of incarceration will give “disconnected” youth the best chance to reach their potential and achieve their career goals.

At Juvenile Law Center, we agree that this approach will best serve not only young people but also their greater communities. We recommend it as a practice for all who are seriously interested in tackling issues of youth employment with system-involved kids.

Patrick Took is a legal intern at the Juvenile Law Center.

This is one in a series of blog posts from the Juvenile Law Center on career pathways and barriers for system-involved youth. It has been slightly edited and is reposted with permission. See the original and full series here.

March Activists Urged to Keep ‘Paying Attention’ at Final Rally

ALBANY, New York — At the midpoint of the 180-mile March for Justice, its organizer, Soffiyah Elijah, was overwhelmed. She was simultaneously trying to find the proper turn on a back road in a Hudson Valley town, coordinate with the caretaker of a 105-year-old woman who wanted to join the march and figure out where to find a laundromat that would stay open late.

She slumped in her seat on the repurposed school bus and wearily placed her face into her hands.

“I need a nap,” she said.

At that point Albany seemed more like 900 miles away than 90, but Wednesday Soffiyah Elijah wore footwear that wasn’t sneakers for the first time in 18 days. She pointed to her brown-and-tan strap sandals inside LaZeez, the Indian restaurant where she was planning the rally for later that evening and cracked a joke.

“It feels good to be in something other than sneakers,” she said, flashing a brilliant smile.

She had launched the March for Justice on Aug. 26 in Harlem in Manhattan. And after walking through numerous counties, towns, villages and cities, they had finally made it.

Elijah, the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, conceived of the march as a way to employ traditional 20th-century civil rights tactics to draw attention to what she considers an urgent 21st-century civil rights catastrophe in New York: the abuse of prisoners in the state’s juvenile adult facilities and the broken criminal justice system that puts them there. The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on Earth. In New York, often heralded as a beacon of progressivism, 80 percent of its prison population is black or Hispanic.

Elijah’s organization is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. It fights for a number of issues — from voter registration to meaningful raise-the-age reforms, as well as supporting the families with loved ones behind bars.

March organizer Soffiyah Elijah told the crowd "you should never be able to rest at night until you’ve done everything in your power to help bring an end to the suffering going on in prisons and jails going on right in New York and across the country.”

New York’s prisons are almost exclusively upstate, away from New York City, often in bucolic surroundings near charming hamlets and villages. Elijah strategically selected a route that would take the march past as many prisons as possible en route to Albany, the heart of political power in the state.

At 5 p.m. the march culminated in a rally in West Capitol Park, in the center of vast, imposing state government buildings. Behind the stage was the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, its granite facade etched with the names of many of the counties the marchers crossed: Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster, Green.

Elijah opened the rally by launching into her favorite chant, one she recited dozens of times. It begins: “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family …” She did her trademark crouch and shimmy and then ran into the crowd like the front man of a rock band and kept leading the chant. She approached Miss Ivey, the oldest of the marchers who made it all the way from Harlem, and held her signature red megaphone to Miss Ivey’s mouth so she could lead the chant.

Across the lawn of the park sat the New York Capitol Building, on either side the monumental Legislative and state Educational buildings. The emcee, Alliance member Carol Harriott, kept the mood light as well, making jokes and moving the evening along with an upbeat, conversational tone. She teased Elijah at one point and had the crowd laughing.

Many of the 200 people who gathered for the rally wore T-shirts or held handmade posters advocating for the cause they think is in most need of reform. Some support ending solitary confinement for youth, others for improved reentry services.

Whatever the cause, all the attendees were in agreement with the march’s aim — to bring as much attention as possible to what they see as a civil rights catastrophe in New York’s criminal justice system. One recurring theme for speakers was the need to convert the energy created by the march into tangible policy successes.

March organizer Soffiyah Elijah was happy to be wearing something other than sneakers after 18 days of marching.

Again and again, speakers encouraged attendees to reach out to politicians and policymakers at every level of government. As the sun set, in a theatrical gesture Elijah showed how she was going to tell Andrew, referring to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She raised her megaphone to her mouth and led a chant about bringing an end to the prison state. Her voice was rugged and raw after 18 days of chants, but it could be heard clearly as it bounced off the walls of the Capitol building.

Throughout the evening speakers talked about the list of demands. Chief among them was closing down the Attica Correctional Facility, which Elijah called New York’s Abu Ghraib. She had timed the march with the anniversary of what some call a riot and others call a rebellion and an uprising, when Attica prisoners took corrections officers hostage to draw attention to abuses happening inside the prison.

“If you consider yourself a person of conscience,” Elijah said. “Then you should never be able to rest at night until you’ve done everything in your power to help bring an end to the suffering going on in prisons and jails going on right in New York and across the country.”

Throughout the two-hour rally speakers came to tell their stories and give intimate, human examples of what they meant when they used the clunky phrase “prison industrial complex.”

Alicia Barraza, a veteran of the political battle to raise the age of treating juveniles as adults during the last state legislative session, recounted the story of her son, Ben Van Zandt. She talked about how as a result of a severe mental illness he committed a crime, arson, when he was 17. He was charged as an adult and placed in series of adult prisons where he endured beatings, rapes and frequent harassment due to his illness. Eventually, he ended up in Fishkill Correctional Facility. It’s a prison in Beacon, New York, where Elijah and her marchers had a confrontation with an administrator who accused them of riling up the inmates.

While he was in Fishkill, Baraza was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. Eventually, he killed himself. He was 21.

“He just couldn’t take it anymore,” Barraza said.

The soaring buildings of the state capitol loomed over the marcher and supporters.

When she explained that her son committed suicide, the crowd gasped. She cautioned the crowd to be vigilant. Despite the Empire State passing a law to raise the age, district attorneys still have vast power to steer teenagers into the adult system.

“People should be paying attention,” she said.

Some marchers reunited for the first time since meeting on the road. Friends, associates and fellow activists chatted amiably between speakers. But after Barraza spoke, the mood took a jarring turn.

For most of the evening the mood had been light and jovial, despite the seriousness of the event. Harriott took back the microphone. For most of the evening she had been upbeat. She suddenly appeared shaken, overcome with sorrow.

She made a few halting attempts to encourage people to be active, her voice starting to crack.

“I’ve run out of words,” she said.

She stepped away from the microphone, slid her fingers beneath her glasses and wiped away tears. Elijah came up from the crowd, where she had been glad-handing and hugging well-wishers, to meet her. She hugged Harriot, who was now sobbing.

Other marchers noticed Harriot, who, like them, had made some part of the 180-mile journey from Harlem to the shadow of the statehouse in Albany. They took a few more steps to join in consoling her.

Check out previous New York March coverage


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Some Secure Youth Facilities Are Not Bad and Are Still Needed, Latest Research Shows

As someone who has worked, lived and breathed our mission statement: “Treat all youths in custody as one of our own,” I was ecstatic when the research on the teenage brain and adolescent development made its way into juvenile justice. The 2013 publication of the National Academy of Science’s “Reforming Juvenile Justice, A Developmental Approach” in particular launched new reforms and accelerated existing ones in the facilities and community programs we work with at Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS). I thank the John D. MacArthur Foundation and Laurie Garduque in particular for supporting the research over much of the last two decades that created the so-called Fourth Wave of Reform.

Conversations among corrections and detention leaders and professionals, locally and nationally, changed from how to reduce punishment to how to catch youths doing things right — because that’s what the research says works best. Now standing on solid ground with the adolescent development research, deep-end reformers expanded daily programming to include more time with families, sought out and secured opportunities for youths to work and make connections in the community and trained staff to build healthy, nurturing relationships with youths. Youth councils became more the rule than the exception. At PbS, we created the Kids Got Talent Contest and host the winner each year to travel and perform live as the feature act of our national awards night. I worried the first year we might not get any or only a few submissions but the contest was embraced. Youths and staff were excited to share their talents and the competition has grown each year.

It seems the wave is on a roll.

But, as is so well written and thoughtfully presented in the recent publication “Assuring the Future of Developmental Reform in Juvenile Justice” (I was a member of the panel that identified the threats to the reforms; that became the report), there are challenges to sustaining the reforms and even threats to the long-range objectives because of the reform movement itself. There are many vulnerabilities that put the good work at risk, especially at the deep end of juvenile justice.

To be very clear: My passion is the youths who are in custody. They are the reason I get up and go to work. I don’t want them to be locked up or caught in the web of the juvenile justice system at all. I know the research on the effectiveness of community-based programs and promote diversion. I want juvenile justice reform to do all that’s possible to reduce the use of secure facilities and avoid placing any youths in secure programs when they don’t need them. But if they are, we are morally obligated to provide them with the best services and opportunities we can, to bring the research into practice and keep them on the path to maturing to be healthy, productive and fulfilled adults.

What I fear threatens the powerful reforms sweeping state, county and community residential facilities is using the developmental approach as evidence that all secure facilities must be closed because all facilities are “bad.”

Here’s why: First, as unpopular as it is to say, secure placement is the right place for a very few youths who are dangerous and have developmental needs for interventions that can only be managed in secure settings: serious offenders, repeat offenders and youths who need more structured treatment to prepare them for reentry than a community program can provide. I interviewed a youth in a secure facility who had been playing Russian roulette with his best friend. He pointed the gun to his temple, nothing happened. He pointed at his friend’s temple, it fired, his friend died. He needed intensive treatment and 24-hour supervision. It was the best place for him. He felt safe and cared for and was afraid to return to the community.

Our justice system relies on incarceration. Without secure facilities for young offenders, judges are most likely to send a youth charged with murder or rape to an adult prison rather than to the community. Informally and formally, the system will be restructured to transfer those youths to adult prisons, the opposite result intended by the developmentally based reform efforts to keep youths out of adult prisons. Juvenile justice essentially becomes eliminated as an option, the opposite intention of reform efforts to ensure youths are recognized by our justice system as developmentally different from adults.

Second, the drive to close all juvenile secure facilities infers that all facilities are bad when there is evidence that they are not. Labeling facilities as bad has the same effect as it does when we label youths as bad: They lose motivation to change. It is a quick way to discourage the staff working with the youths every day. Another youth I interviewed in a facility summed it up: “When people tell me I’m bad, it don’t make it easy to be good.”

There are some very good secure treatment facilities across the country.

They don’t get a lot of positive attention in the reform movement but they are having the impact the Fourth Wave intends. Agency directors, facility administrators and line staff who treat youths like they are their own children, create nurturing relationships, partner with parents, create hope for youths and promote their self-confidence and self-awareness. Their data shows youths and staff are safe, and developmentally appropriate programming prepares the youths for reentry.

PbS is the only entity that surveys youths, staff and families twice a year to hear what they have to say about safety, services, relationships, quality of life and culture. I share some of the responses from April 2017 with the full understanding that the information indicates the work ahead as well as the work to date:

  • When asked “What is the best thing this facility did to get you ready to move to your next placement or to go home?” the top three responses were: Learn to make better choices (67 percent), Improve my attitude (61 percent) and Be accountable for my actions (59 percent);
    • Most said their family felt welcome at the facility (70 percent) and that their family and staff generally got along with each other (72 percent);
  • When asked about fairness, 83 percent said staff are fair applying rules about phone calls, 72 percent said staff are fair about discipline issues and 60 percent said the rules are fair.
    • Additionally, 75 percent said staff seemed to genuinely care about them and 68 percent said overall they trust staff.

I was extremely fortunate to be a member of the Forecasting Project working to identify the challenges the reform would face and strategies to ensure the changes were sustained. It was the most remarkable process and thorough examination by the most dedicated and knowledgeable group of individuals I’ve ever experienced. They did not recommend the closing of youth secure facilities.

To move forward, the group recommends that the organizations and individuals promoting reform collaborate and be aware of causing unintended negative consequences. There are more than 50,000 youths in custody, and they need the wave of the adolescent development reform to include them, not wash over them.

Kim Godfrey serves as executive director of the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS), a national nonprofit dedicated to treating all youths in custody as one of our own. Kim has worked since 1995 developing and directing PbS, a data-driven improvement model  that holds juvenile justice agencies to the highest standards of quality of life, programs and services.

How a New York Police Official Targets Thoughts to Fight Crime


Watch WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show to learn more and meet videographer Micah Danney and Risco Mention-Lewis


NEW YORK — When Carlos Jennings got out of prison in 2014, he wanted to kill the person who helped put him there.

“I wasn’t home seven days after doing 10 years in jail, and I’m in the car with somebody else, with a gun in my hand, trying to do something to somebody,” he said.

He was 22 and deep in the narcotics business in Queens, New York, when he fatally shot a man who had previously shot him in a failed paid hit, according to Jennings. He eventually served 10 years for the murder. When he got out at 35, he wanted revenge against the person who gave him up to police. It was logical to him then, tit for tat.

“My normal thing was to get a gun and kill,” Jennings said.

But before he found his target, he met someone who changed his mind, and then his life.

Jennings was paroled to Long Island, where he had family. His parole officer advised that he go to meetings led by Risco Mention-Lewis, the Suffolk County deputy police commissioner. A small group, mostly men with criminal records, gathered each week to talk about what was going on in their lives.

Mention-Lewis called it the Council of Thought and Action. People who became members had astoundingly low recidivism rates.

Jennings remembers feeling that something was off with his thinking when he was released. He hadn’t seen his grandmother yet but he was already armed and ready to kill.

Mention-Lewis exploited the crack that had formed in his perception.

“She told me I had crazy house rules,” Jennings said. “The stuff I think is normal, people look at it as crazy.”

He listened. He kept going to the meetings. He was open with her — she asked him to promise that he wouldn’t kill again, and he said he couldn’t promise that. But he kept going to the meetings.

Jennings credits Mention-Lewis with saving his life and that of the person he was looking for. Now, two years later, he’s training to facilitate meetings. And he promised never to kill again.

“Coming to COTA and doing things positive, I can see now, like, above the cliff,” he said. “Like people hang on the cliff — I can see over the cliff, like yo, it’s a nice neighborhood here. So I’m just learning that and adjusting to it.”

“The idea is to build a new social moral network within the community,” Mention-Lewis said. “You want to reset the moral standard. You want the moral people to organize together so they can become more vocal than the criminals — people who are very visible in these neighborhoods. The very few criminals are more visible than the good and righteous. The work I do is trying to make the good and righteous more visible, which brings hope to the ones who are in the criminal world.”

Mention-Lewis was a prosecutor in Nassau County for nearly two decades until 2012, when she left in a crisis of conscience. Jailing people was failing to address what was driving them to commit crime, she said, and she didn’t want to keep contributing to the cycle.

She had founded COTA in 2008 as a grassroots movement — not a program, she’s quick to state — that she designed to rewire the thinking of the people whose behavior her office was supposed to punish. When she left the prosecutor’s office, she was offered a job as deputy police commissioner of neighboring Suffolk County. It felt like divine intervention, she said.

Mention-Lewis’ style is unique. She spends time in the streets, driving up to corners where trouble happens and getting to know the people who spend their time there. She visits the homes of young men who she knows are involved in criminal activity, sometimes intervening when a beef is brewing and could turn deadly. And every Wednesday she leads a COTA meeting in Wyandanch, a hamlet with the highest crime rate in the county.

She started working in Wyandanch in 2012. Since then, 150 people have attended at least three meetings, the only requirement to become a COTA member. Mention-Lewis checks for new arrests every six months. Among those with records, the recidivism rate is 10 percent, she said — a fraction of the 77 percent of people who are arrested nationally within five years of release from state prisons.

Crime decreased countywide in Suffolk over the past four years, but the drop has been most dramatic in Wyandanch. There were 15 percent fewer violent crimes last year than in 2012, and 31 percent less crime overall, according to the Suffolk County Police Department.

Despite this, Mention-Lewis insists that the crime rate is a flawed way to judge a community’s progress, in the same way that a person’s growth shouldn’t be measured by their lack of offenses. “It’s about individuals and groups of people changing their social networks, changing the way they think about life, and paying bills and raising productive children,” she said.

The meetings also act as networking events. Members share information about job training programs, openings with local unions and resources for developing hobbies like clothing design into small businesses. Just as personal hook-ups drew many into illegal money-making, they draw many away from it.

Suffolk County Deputy Police Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis leads weekly meetings of the Council of Thought and Action in Wyandanch, New York.

Mention-Lewis often goes into matchmaker mode, excitedly sharing names and numbers when an interest is proclaimed. Homeless COTA members have become homeowners and high school dropouts have graduated from colleges with honors.

While she rebuilds the community and its image of itself, she also tries to inspire new ways of thinking in her department. “They see how I can relate to people, and they see that there’s no harm in relating to some of these people that you never would have thought that you could even relate to,” Mention-Lewis said.

“... I guess what I’m trying to say to people is just because you lock them up doesn’t mean it goes along with treating them like a scumbag. I can lock you up for your behavior knowing that 90 percent of the time you’re not committing crimes,” she said. “And so I think building a new vision of communities and people — people of color in particular — makes for better policing, and I think that the precincts that have been working with me do see the value of the work.”

Inspector Mathew Lewis commands the precinct that covers Wyandanch. He agreed that a more intervention-based approach, which includes the meetings, is having success there. He noted the determination he said Mention-Lewis brings to her work. “She’s passionate about what she does, and you’ve got to respect somebody who’s passionate about something,” he said. “And I do enjoy working with her because of that.”

Mention-Lewis spent her early childhood in Boston’s predominantly African-American Roxbury neighborhood, then moved to the mostly white town of Hanson, Massachusetts when she was 11. “I was tough when I was in the other neighborhood, and when I moved to Hanson I had to learn that fighting was unacceptable,” she said. “So I learned that there were two cultures.”

Bridging them helped prepare her for the two worlds she now straddles. Mention-Lewis is the first black woman to have her job in Suffolk. The rest of the department’s top brass are white men.

Chief Stuart Cameron and his colleagues had to adjust to their new superior getting personally acquainted with local troublemakers. “It’s very unusual to have a deputy commissioner that’s out amongst the people like she is,” he said. “I mean, she’s really out — she’s out on the street corner, she’s out talking to people all the time. And a lot of the people she’s talking with are people that we have dealt with in the past and maybe even arrested. At first you’re like, why is this going on, why’s she doing this? But then when you understand what she’s doing and you see that it reaps results, it’s hard not to accept it.”

Mention-Lewis once explained criminals in a way that was a revelation to Cameron. “Their lives are lives of fear,” he said. “And I never even gave that any thought, what criminals think. You know, I just saw my role in the police department as: Someone commits a crime, you identify them, you arrest them and you try and put them in jail. So if a criminal’s afraid, they would definitely potentially be receptive to another law-abiding lifestyle where they don’t have to live in fear.”

Mention-Lewis describes crime as a flawed solution to valid problems, and describes herself as a problem-solver.

Meetings are open to anyone. Participants share how their week is going, what problems they face and what their successes have been. The meetings have elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, professional networking and community building.

“Sometimes people see crime as a reflection of a person’s true self, but I see crime as a system that we use because we’re poor problem-solvers,” she said. “So if you have a person in your life who’s a good problem-solver, you’re much less likely to rely on crimes to solve your problems.”

Police Commissioner Timothy Sini called his deputy “a weapon” who uses her charisma to advance cutting-edge intervention strategies. He said many in the department value an approach that isn’t all cat and mouse.

“In some ways, they’ve been doing this, just not as formalized and not as deliberate,” Sini said. “The notion of sort of approaching someone because you think they may be the victim of or associated with crime, that’s not unique. Just the way that Commissioner Lewis has set up the structure and used evidence-based practices, there’s just always so much more utility to it.”

One strategy is custom notifications. A shooting victim or their friends or relatives might be primed for revenge. Sometimes enough is known about a situation but there isn’t enough evidence to make an arrest. Mention-Lewis shows up at the home of the person or people in question. She is accompanied by a small team, typically two officers, two supervisors and someone from the community who has respect and credibility. They bring an official letter from Sini spelling out the consequences of any further criminal activity.

“Basically saying you’re not anonymous, we know who you are, we know what you’re up to,” Sini said. “You’re going to end up in jail or worse, hurt or killed, and there’s a better way. And she tries to connect them to resources to get their lives back on track, and sometimes that will be COTA.”

That’s one of the ways Mention-Lewis compels young men who live on the edges of society into her discussion forums. She also visits inmates.

“They can’t say, ‘Hey, I never got a chance, I never got a shot,’” she said. “How many deputy police commissioners come visit you in jail?”

In the meetings, she chips away at systems of perception and reaction that people have built for themselves. She uses the existing motivators in most people who engage in illegal enterprises to introduce new concepts:

  • The individual as a corporation, their own chief executive officer, who should have a board of advisers for wise counsel.
  • The imposter, or the misrepresentation of oneself by aggression, deceit or otherwise, which has outlived any purpose it evolved to deal with and now causes self-destruction.
  • The rocks in the backpack — emotional traumas, often inflicted at an early age, that emanate from a reservoir of pain and play a false and negative tape in their host’s mind.

Mention-Lewis has a propensity for one-liner wisdom. “The strongest man you know is a woman,” she often says.

“The universe is always conspiring for your success,” she repeats at every meeting.

Meetings are attended by regulars, newcomers and some who check in every so often. Local politicians, social workers, uniformed police officers, professionals of many stripes — people hear about the meetings and drop in, sometimes at Mention-Lewis’ invitation and often by word of mouth. Sini has sat in.

“I found it extremely empowering, and relevant,” he said. “It’s for anyone. Certainly we’re targeting people who are at risk, because that’s the whole idea, but I benefited from it, you know? You’re talking about your feelings and thoughts and where you want to be in life and how to get there. There’s the famous saying that Commissioner Lewis is always saying: your rocks in the backpack. So it’s incredibly helpful for professionals, and it’s particularly helpful for folks who need that guidance.”

Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, knows Mention-Lewis and has sat in on a COTA meeting. Jacobs recognized in COTA aspects of workshops she’s taken to improve her own personal habits, “and was always curious where Risco had kind of figured this out, and how she had kind of made it available to people,” she said.

Jacobs added that any ongoing supportive community that is owned by the people it supports is powerful. “And the kinds of concepts, or precepts, that underlie COTA are — I mean, in my own life, I’ve kind of discovered — are the secrets of the universe,” she said.

She praised its focus on participants’ strengths and ambitions rather than their deficiencies. “Like, ‘Those people need something,’” she said. “A lot of us have problems with that and balk at that.”

A trap with such things is what Buddhists call spiritual materialism, she said, “where you take something that can be a really powerful practice, but you make it into ‘a thing’ — a thing that makes you right because you do it and somebody else wrong because they don’t,” Jacobs said. “Anything can devolve into a thing if you let it, and that would be a hazard in this too.”

It is to avoid the pitfalls that programs fall into that Mention-Lewis calls COTA a movement. If a newcomer utters the word program in a meeting, Mention-Lewis calls out, “Are we a program?” to which the room responds in unison with a resounding, “Movement!”

Meetings end with the credo, "Our thoughts become our actions, our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny."

The movement’s biggest challenge is how it will grow. Jacobs said COTA shares elements of other initiatives that have had success, usually because of a charismatic leader or a treatment program that is carefully designed and applied. But both models are limited in scale by what makes them successful — a leader can’t teach their charisma and a good program loses its potency if it isn’t administered properly. The uniqueness that makes a phenomenon special is what makes it difficult to replicate.

“How do you share it in other settings when Risco isn’t going to be the one convening the meeting and modeling the behavior of leadership?” Jacobs said.

But COTA has spread since Jacobs visited, to three more communities on Long Island. The facilitators who run them are group members who volunteered, and are trained continuously by Mention-Lewis. She sustains the network on $60,000 a year from the state, which is divided between a case manager and an outreach worker. There are also five sites in Chicago, started in 2014: three in high schools and two adult sites, one of them inside a detention center. The city spends $400,000 annually to fund them; $80,000 for each site.

That kind of expansion means Mention-Lewis is figuring out how to make it work, Jacobs said, adding that COTA seems to be a hybrid between the fraught extremes of charismatic leader and strict program adherence. She has decoded cognitive behavioral therapy for people of any education level, Jacobs said, and is teaching others to do the same.

Another potential problem is the toxicity of participants who don’t want to be there. COTA isn’t mandated and it has no rules that can get a person kicked out, which helps ensure that its participants are motivated.

A motivational structure is key, according to Richard Gray, a psychologist and former federal probation officer who developed a celebrated treatment program for offenders with substance abuse disorders. “It seems that there are many participants who run with the opportunity and take advantage of the counseling provided,” he said. “So there is a behavior distinction made to separate the unmotivated from the motivated. Good call.”

Members tend to have home groups, but will travel to others. Malik Roberts, 20, met Mention-Lewis seven years ago in Hempstead, New York, where she founded the first group. He was in and out of trouble, and once served eight months in the county jail for burglary and assault charges. He now has a steady job and mentors teens. “Before COTA, I was ripping and running,” he said, “but now I just be chilling and getting my life back on track.”

Jacob Key, 20, of Wyandanch, got involved four years ago when Mention-Lewis enlisted him to help bring in other young people. “You can go there and be comfortable,” he said.

After leaving his first meeting in April, Kion Carter, 23, said he would go back. “Obviously, nobody likes cops. You’re standing in the middle of a known town that’s known for drugs and guns, you know?” he said. “Me personally — she’s a strong lady. She took it further than just being a cop. She looks at it as other people are in trouble and nobody else is putting their neck out there to help.”

Mention-Lewis focuses her energies on transforming Wyandanch by an evolution of consciousness, and looks for people who can steer the groups the way she can. “I think you have to have an innate wisdom to do this,” she said.

She entrusted the Chicago chapter to Charles Perry, 51. They met at a workshop organized by the National Network for Safe Communities. Perry served 19 years of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell cocaine. He got a college degree in federal prison and started rethinking his life. He did volunteer work when he got out and landed a job doing reentry work with released prisoners.

Perry said he found in COTA what he always felt was missing in the work he was doing. “What struck me was the language. The first part was that we should see ourselves as a corporation. That’s something that I had always thought about,” he said. “It meant that you were in charge of something larger than yourself. So when I started reading over COTA and listening to Ms. Risco, I said, ‘This is it.’”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visited a meeting once and told Perry she could only stay 45 minutes. “She stayed the whole two hours,” Perry said, “and then stayed another 30 minutes engaging the participants.”

And new adult participants react no differently, he said: “They come in and they’re just there because it’s part of the reentry process that they’re going through, but by the time they reach eight to 10 weeks, they’re telling you how this has impacted their lives — how they’re making better decisions, how they’re understanding that the way they react in certain situations really wasn’t them, but it was the imposter that was inside of them, and now they’re learning to control the imposter and be the president of their own corporation.”

Perry added that the verdict is still out on how young people will take to it. They’re not tired of consequences yet, he said.

Mention-Lewis said she’s undaunted by youthful folly. They require more intensity and communication, but it’s still a matter of pursuing them by helping them pursue their dreams. “This knowledge can change the world,” she said.

It has already changed the world for Carlos Jennings. “What I’ve learned is you have a choice,” he said, then paused. “The most valuable thing, I think, is love. I’m gonna be honest with you. True, unconditional love.”


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Mentors Crucial to Curb Recidivism for Youths

It has been said that all a child needs is one caring adult in order to become a success in life. When a child is removed from home because of parental abuse or neglect or the child’s delinquent behavior, often the best path to a successful life involves one caring adult who acts as a mentor and a guide. If this is true, it contains an important message for juvenile court judges and for the attorneys and other professionals who children meet.

Mentoring a child ranks as one of the most popular interventions we use to improve outcomes for children. The number of mentoring programs nationwide can only be estimated. More than 5,000 mentoring organizations within the United States serve more than 3 million youths to promote youth well-being and reduce risk. Nationally, then-President Barack Obama called upon individuals in all communities to commit to mentoring young men of color through the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. This initiative seeks to address persistent opportunity gaps and ensure all youth are able to reach their full potential. Corporations, schools, churches, athletic centers and community-based organizations all invest time and resources in operating mentoring programs. Additionally, national organizations such as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Boys and Girls Clubs of America operate in almost every state and local jurisdiction.

Mentoring involves a relationship between two individuals based on a mutual desire for development toward career goals and objectives. Mentoring can be defined by the following three characteristics: (1) interaction between two individuals over an extended period of time; (2) inequality of experience, knowledge or power between the mentor and mentee (recipient) with the mentor possessing the greater share, and (3) the mentee being in a position to imitate and benefit from the knowledge, skill, ability or experience of the mentor.

The data support the effectiveness of mentoring programs — in short, they work. No one seems to have concluded why mentoring is effective and what elements in the mentoring process make it successful; yet the results continue to impress. The data show that the mentees are involved in less criminality, less aggression, less substance abuse and improved academic success, all leading to a more positive role in society. Perhaps most significantly, mentors are problem solvers and can help mentees plan for their future.

What does this mean for juvenile court judges, attorneys and other professionals? We need to support mentoring programs in our communities. This conclusion is consistent with Standard of Judicial Administration 5.40(e), which states in part:

“Judges of the juvenile court … are encouraged to:

(1) Provide active leadership within the community in determining the needs of and obtaining and developing resources and services for at-risk children and families.”

“(2) Investigate and determine the availability of specific  prevention, intervention, and treatment services in the  community for at-risk children and families.”

Similar emphasis is included in standards for attorneys, social workers and probation officers.

The juvenile court judge should start with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). This program was created to provide a trained support person for abused or neglected children who are the subject of legal proceedings in the court system. The advocate often becomes the most consistent support person for the child and provides critical information to the court about the child’s best interests. While the CASA agrees to serve as a mentor for a year, some volunteers remain connected to their child for years after the youth has aged out of foster care. Juvenile court judges recognize the importance of CASA and have led the creation of 44 CASA programs in California counties serving 50 counties and approximately 12,000 children. Nationally, nearly 1,000 programs serve more than 251,000 abused and neglected children. While it takes a judge to start a CASA program, attorneys and social workers can support the judge’s efforts and can urge a hesitant judge to start a CASA program.

Creative juvenile court judges have expanded the CASA concept to include youth in the juvenile justice system. In Santa Clara County, for example, Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Pat Tondreau worked with community leaders, attorneys and other professionals to create CAFA, the Court Appointed Friends and Advocates program, a mentoring program for adolescent youth in the juvenile justice system.

Partially modeled on CASA, the CAFA volunteers are thoroughly screened and receive a minimum of 30 hours of training before they are sworn in by a judicial officer to serve as officers of the court. Volunteers are typically college age and often are on a career path toward law enforcement or probation. Many see mentoring as an ideal introduction to the juvenile justice system. Trainings focus on family engagement, school, probation, courts and court reports, the law and the juvenile justice system. Pursuant to local rules of the Santa Clara County Superior Court, volunteers have access to the courtroom and to juvenile court files. At court hearings, they provide a report to the court on behalf of their mentee.

The purpose of the CAFA program is to provide a minor with an advocate who is consistently in the minor's life and to support the youth while on probation and in moving out of the juvenile justice system. The CAFA establishes a relationship with the youth and becomes a friend, a mentor and an advocate. The CAFA will advocate for the youth in courtroom proceedings and will assist in accessing activities including sports and tutoring as well as educational and training opportunities.

The CAFA also helps the youth address problems that face all adolescents, such as getting a driver’s license, getting a summer job, finding housing, sealing juvenile records and securing health insurance. The youths in the program are either wards of the court living at home or minors who qualified for Deferred Entry of Judgment. This relatively new program has already served 56 youth, with 18 currently in the program and four on the waiting list. Plans for expansion are currently under discussion. Critical to the success of CAFA in Santa Clara County was the involvement of FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth), a local youth advocacy program with a focus on rehabilitation. FLY has offices in both San Mateo and Alameda counties.  

If mentoring has such positive effects, why do we not find mentoring opportunities for more youth? Perhaps an attorney could ask the court to require the probation officer to take steps to identify a mentor for the youth or locate a mentoring program that will work with the young person. That mentor might be a coach, a teacher, a college student or a volunteer with a local program. In any case, it would be a person who can bring a positive role model into the youth’s life.

In this regard it makes sense for the juvenile court judge to meet with probation officers, attorneys, local mentoring programs and community leaders to discuss using mentoring programs for youth in the juvenile justice system. That is what happened in Santa Clara County. Judge Tondreau with his justice partners , the Santa Clara County Probation Department, the District Attorney’s office and minor’s counsel brought together corporate, religious, educational, service clubs, sports leaders, local community-based organizations that have existing mentoring programs and other judges, particularly retired Superior Court Judge Melinda Stewart. Participants brainstormed ideas about the need for mentors and how a mentoring program could be created.

CAFA has been so successful that the Santa Clara County Probation Department has agreed to provide funding for the next year. They recognize the value of mentoring juvenile justice youth.

The juvenile justice system devotes a great deal of time and energy explaining to delinquent youth what they should not be doing. I suggest that by finding a mentor for youth we will be including a potentially positive person in his or her life, and that may make all the difference. In 1899 the creators of the juvenile court embraced rehabilitation as one of its primary goals. A mentor can be a powerful intervention to help a youth on that path to rehabilitation.

Judge Leonard Edwards is a retired judge now working as a consultant, educator and trainer. He served as a Superior Court judge in Santa Clara County, California, for 26 years and then for six years as judge-in-residence at the Center for Families, Children & the Courts, a division of the Judicial Council of California.