By Ron Stewart

I read Rod Watson’s June 27 commentary on how the Crossroads program, a collaboration with Buffalo City Court Judge James A.W. McLeod and Umar Adeyola of HEART (Helping Empower At Risk Teens), is winning at breaking the cycle of criminality and re-arrest rates among young offenders.

Watson leads the piece with how teens are greeted by the “Pull Up Your Pants” poster in McLeod’s courtroom. I recently attended a Networking in Higher Education Conference presented by SUNY Buffalo State and the University at Buffalo’s African-American Faculty and Staff associations. Keynote speaker Pedro Nigeroa shared the phrase “Elevate Your Mind, You’ll Elevate your Pants.” While the message is similar to the poster in McLeod’s courtroom, more importantly, it empowers young kids to think for themselves and not be admonished to do something.

Crossroads empowers young people to do the things they need to do to comport and present themselves. This alternative approach to incarceration is critical given the numbers of African-Americans in the criminal justice system. The fact that Crossroads is being piloted throughout New York suggests we could save a generation.

This is a noble effort on McLeod’s behalf and his commitment to the betterment of young people, particularly his earnest determination to help African-American males.

Crossroads’ 13 percent recidivism rate measured against the nearly 60 percent national rate speaks volumes in getting young offenders to remove themselves from the criminal justice system and heighten their life chances and possibilities. The program harkens back to educator Booker T. Washington’s bootstrap approach. It states that the best way for a person or a group to elevate themselves is to create their own opportunities and lift themselves up. Crossroads presents a second chance, but these young people have to be willing to take advantage and change the course of their lives.

Another factor in this successful equation is that the HEART agency is staffed with highly qualified clinicians located within the community it’s striving to improve. Founder Umar Adeyola understands that young people are more likely to listen to counselors that are passionate about positive change and the organization is actively taking ownership of problems confronting our youth. HEART’s counselors are intrinsically vested in their success and I salute them for offering culturally competent services. Young people need to know we care about them, that they deserve better and that we want them to be successful.

McLeod’s alternative to incarceration program is a prime example of how the criminal justice system can work collaboratively with the community as an agent of change.

Ron Stewart, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at SUNY Buffalo State.