Names have been changed
Fifteen-year-old “Jared” will start his freshman year of high school this fall. He wants to keep his grades up so he can play football and get a job at Taco Bell or KFC when he turns 16. These are the kind of goals shared by millions of teenagers, but for Jared, things could have gone in a very different direction.
Recently, he got in a fight with another boy at school. It was far from Jared’s first fight; he often fought and skipped school to deal with stress and frustration. After the fight, the other boy reported his cell phone missing. Although Jared said he didn’t take it, he was arrested for both assault and robbery.
He could have been sent to a juvenile detention facility. Instead, Jared ended up at Project READY, a program in Staten Island that gives a second chance to kids in trouble. Instead of detention, Jared must attend an after-school program, follow a strict curfew, and cooperate with Project READY staff as they help him to make more positive choices.
The program is run by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), an organization that works to reform the criminal justice system. The center has several juvenile justice programs aimed at preventing youth crime and creating more promising options for teens.
Project READY is one of five Alternative to Detention (ATD) programs in New York City, and one of two run by CCI. As the name suggests, it’s a place other than jail where a judge can send a kid who’s been arrested for delinquency and is waiting for his case to be heard in family court. ATDs keep kids in the community so their lives don’t get interrupted, and help them solve problems that might lead to future arrests. There are similar programs across the country.
Jail Begets Jail
According to a 2004 report by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, kids who spend time in juvenile detention have a harder time adjusting to their communities after their release and are more likely to be re-arrested than those who are given the chance to stay in their communities.
“When kids are locked up, they are removed from everything familiar,” said Alfred Siegel, deputy director of the Center for Court Innovation. “People realize now that keeping kids in their communities is the way to go.”
ATDs are far from a get-out-of-jail-free card; kids who get sent there are carefully supervised. They have a mandatory curfew, and staff call their home every night, on weekends, and on holidays to check that they’re meeting curfew, attending school, and doing well in their classes. The staff also report back to the city’s family court judges about each youth’s progress.
There are two components to the ATDs: an after-school program and a community monitoring program. Most teens start in the after-school program and move down to community monitoring, in which staff carefully keep track of behavior, school attendance, and other concerns.
Every afternoon from 3 to 6:30, Monday through Friday, the teens in the after-school programs meet to receive tutoring, eat a hot meal together, and do activities like art, music, and career workshops. Some ATDs even organize volunteer work in the community. It’s also a time to meet with a social worker to talk about behavior, family problems, and other things that may be at the root of the teens’ trouble with the law.
Problems at home are often a factor. And sometimes, parents don’t want to take their child back home after an arrest—especially if the kid was arrested for an incident that happened at home, like a fight with a family member. So Project READY also has a temporary respite foster care program for up to 21 days that gives kids and parents space to “cool off”: They receive individual and family therapy to work on coping strategies, behavior, and—for parents—parenting skills. At the end, the teen has a behavior plan that they’ve practiced in the temporary foster home to help make a smooth adjustment back into their family.
Project READY’s director, Melissa Gelber, says the program tries to incorporate youth development into parole: It’s about accountability and responsibility, but it’s also about exploring goals, personal identity, health, and other things kids need to be successful and take control of their lives. The point is to help kids find ways to solve their problems so that they won’t get further involved in the criminal justice system and negative behaviors. She calls it “problem-solving justice. We are not just an alternative to detention.”
Since the current ATD system started in 2007, the number of juveniles assigned to detention is down by about 30% in the city. The juvenile re-arrest rate is down 35%.
More and more, Alfred Siegel said, youth are coming into the juvenile justice system for mental health reasons and school-related incidents. With more police in schools today, kids are getting arrested for things that used to be handled by the education system. He said working with schools to provide the right support to kids and to take them back after they’ve been in trouble is a big challenge. ATDs help schools, students, and families make that transition.
Gelber says some kids barely go to school, but come to Project READY every day. “We tell the judge this isn’t a public safety risk; there are things going on in his life. How do you solve the problem by locking a kid up?”
Speaking Through Art
On a warm spring afternoon, Jared and 10 other teens sat around a huge table, quietly doing homework and getting tutoring. The room they were in could easily hold more than a dozen of these tables. Project READY had just moved into this new space; and most of the walls were still bare, but they plan to transform the big room into a gallery this summer where the teens’ art will be displayed.
Arnold Adams, Project READY’s after-school coordinator and compliance monitor, moved around the table, checking in with teens about job interviews and homework. Later, they shared a pizza, and the kids talked with one another. Then it was time for an art workshop. The art project had several goals—encouraging self-expression, getting kids to communicate with the adults and with each other in a relaxed environment, and, in doing so, building trust and a sense of community so that the adults become part of their support system.
Sixteen-year-old Malia’s print featured the words “Rest in Peace.” She said she was making it to honor her sister. “This program motivates you to stay on track and do the right thing,” she said. “I probably would’ve been in trouble again by now otherwise.” Now the 11th grader is preparing for college.
As he sketched on his cardboard, another teen, Giovanni, said he’d been raised by his grandmother. He doesn’t know his father, and his mother lives in Chicago. He started getting in trouble with the law at age 9, lived in a group home by 12, and had been in and out of jail ever since. “It ruins you, locking you up,” he said. “You’re so angry now.”
A staff member asked, “If you don’t want to be labeled a criminal, why do you affiliate yourself with gang activity?”
The teen replied that he thought of the gang as part of his family.
“Here, everyone comes with something positive to share. But we’re OK with failure and we’re comfortable talking about what worked, what didn’t, and how to change.”
Gelber and Adams both talk a lot about the importance of listening to the teens. Staff take the teens’ suggestions about making changes to the programs in Project READY.
Foster Care Needs More Access
About half the youth in Project READY have some kind of involvement with New York City’s child welfare system, though not all are in foster care. Alfred Siegel worries that kids in foster care are less likely to be referred to an ATD instead of juvenile detention. He said it’s harder to get a group home staff or foster parent to come to court and advocate for youth.
Project READY tries to reach out to foster parents, and is working with New York City’s Children’s Services, to try and improve foster care access to ATDs. But ultimately, it’s up to the judge to decide where to place a youth, and sometimes judges don’t want to consider placing a youth in an ATD if the youth is in a group home. “There’s a perception that group homes don’t have supervision, so I think there’s a unspoken bias against kids in group homes,” said Siegel.
Eyes on the Horizon
There’s no lack of demand for the program. The Center for Court Innovation’s ATDs are over capacity. Project READY is supposed to be working with a maximum of 10 youth; right now they have 23. In Queens, there are 30-40 youth in the program at any given time, Siegel said.
Despite the high demand, staff make it clear to the teens that they can always come back after they’ve finished the program—not because they’ve been re-arrested, but because the ATD has become part of their support network. At Project READY, whether it’s teens’ first day or their last, staff will keep asking them the same question: “How do you want tomorrow to look?”