The teens are greeted by the “Pull Up Your Pants” poster in the courtroom, but that’s the least of the life-changing advice offered in this Buffalo City Court program that tries to salvage young lives.
More significant is the drug and anger counseling, education and job training offered by Crossroads to kids who have come to a critical juncture.
The effort by Judge James A.W. McLeod and the HEART Foundation, a Kensington Avenue human services agency, developed after McLeod saw too many teens busted for nonviolent offenses cycle through the courts en route to more serious problems.
He gathered data and got approval from court officials to refer cases to HEART – Helping Empower At-Risk Teens – whose clinical social workers assess each kid and produce an intervention plan with counseling, academic support, drug treatment and whatever else the teen needs.
They reached out to the city schools, which set up a GED program in City Court, as well as to Erie Community College and service providers.
HEART staffers man the courtroom, monitoring each teen’s progress and feeding information to the judge. So, for instance, when an 11th-grader tells McLeod things have been going fine, he can read from a report showing she has missed 42 classes and had an in-school suspension since appearing before him a month earlier. Unless she can prove otherwise, he tells her, “You go to jail.”
That’s the “stick” in this program for 16- to 19-year-old nonviolent offenders who get a second chance – and all the help they need – to escape the ravages of poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhoods, provided they do their part. The result is a remarkably low 13 percent recidivism rate, according to an analysis by Recovery Solutions, which looked at both a pilot program funded by HEART and a subsequent two-year effort involving 642 teens funded by a $158,000 federal grant.
But numbers tell only part of the story of Crossroads, whose approach is now being tested in a statewide pilot program and whose success recently earned it a share of a $2 million federal job-training grant. The teens themselves tell the rest of the story.
“It helped me see that I didn’t want to be another statistic … a stereotype. I can better myself,” said DaShawn Harmon, 18, who starts ECC’s EMT program this fall after facing McLeod on a larceny charge. If not for the program, he’d be “hangin’ with the same guys I was hangin’ with” instead of being college-bound.
“It made me want to do more; it made me have faith in myself,” said 19-year-old Kani Simmons, who starts his second year at ECC this fall as a criminal-justice major. He was arrested after fighting with his mother, and he credits HEART counselors with teaching him how to deal with people.
“Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary change if given the right support,” said HEART President Umar Adeyola, who knows what he’s talking about after doing time himself for money-laundering a decade ago.
The cost of Crossroads’ support is a pittance compared with the cost of locking someone up. But beyond the money saved, it dispels the myth that these are throwaway kids who want nothing better. Choices are shaped by one’s environment and apparent options.
Give inner-city kids different options, and they’ll make different choices.