How One Community Saved Its Troubled Youth


What would happen if community stakeholders in U.S. urban neighborhoods plagued by the highest rates of youth crime and incarceration were given the opportunity to intervene early— and often— on behalf of young people caught up in the juvenile justice system?

One answer to that question has now been provided in New York's South Bronx neighborhood, where Community Connections for Youth (CCFY), a local non-profit organization, received a $1.1 million grant three years ago from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DJCS), under the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

The grant funded a project that now provides a blueprint for how juvenile justice systems elsewhere in the country can effectively reinvest financial resources at the grassroots neighborhood level.

The project, called South Bronx Community Connections (SBCC), was based on the conviction that our community could do a better job taking care of young people than the juvenile justice system.

We hoped that by intervening at an early stage of a young person's involvement in that system, we could not only keep him or her from re-offending, but could provide that young person with the incentives to pursue a healthy future.

The grant, awarded under the category “Breakthrough Research-Based Strategies,” gave CCFY the freedom to implement any intervention we believed would be effective, under one condition: the project had to be subject to rigorous evaluation by an independent research entity.

Evaluators from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice helped us translate our core values into programmatic strategies that could engage youth, families, and community partners, and design a process for capturing the data that would ultimately prove (or disprove) our hypothesis.

John Jay released its evaluation findings last week. The results were clear: young people who were meaningfully engaged by the SBCC program were one third less likely to be re-arrested one year after program involvement than a balanced comparison group.

How did we do it?

Our first core value was positive youth development. We refused to see youth as nothing more than the sum total of their “risk factors.” Instead, we instead focused on drawing out young people's innate gifts, talents and leadership abilities.

We connected youth to neighborhood grassroots organizations, where they worked with adult mentors on community improvement projects. The mentors were “credible messengers” – men and women who had overcome many of same struggles faced by the youth, including justice system involvement.

Our second core value was family engagement.

We rejected the paternalistic assumption that youth were in the juvenile justice system because their “dysfunctional” families were unwilling or incapable of caring for them. We hired parents whose children had been through the juvenile justice system as “Peer Coaches.” At the same time, we facilitated support groups, along with the evidence-based Strengthening Families Program (SFP) for parents and youth.

Our third core value was building local community capacity.

South Bronx community leaders, including those from the faith-based community, are rich in social capital but poor in financial resources. While they are the first to respond to youth, they are usually the last to be considered for grants and contracts. So our grant enabled us to channel resources to these partners through sub-contracts that funded both mentoring and community improvement projects. Friends of Brook Park, a community garden in the neighborhood, used their resources to hire young people to work on their urban youth farm. YUCA, a local youth arts program, organized a mural project and a talent show. Several of the groups used their resources to hire mentors, and two organizations, United Playaz of New York and FUSED, took steps towards incorporation and applying for non-profit status.

At the same time, we provided training and technical assistance on programmatic best practices and organizational capacity building.

Meanwhile, we asked juvenile justice stakeholders to identify youth charged with cases previously considered too serious for community diversion (i.e. assault) and refer them to our program. We were able to convince Family Court Prosecutors and Probation Officers to divert youth with only a short-term mandate (60 days) by promising that youth and families would receive ongoing community supports well beyond the expiration of their court mandate.

We focused exclusively on first or second time offenders, ages 13 to 15, who lived in our immediate neighborhood, knowing that our ability to engage youth over the long term depended heavily on our frequency of contact—formal and informal—with them and their families.

Over a two-year period, juvenile justice stakeholders referred over 100 young people for participation in the program. We were successful in engaging the majority of referrals, and by the end of the demonstration period, the New York Police Department was using South Bronx Community Connections (SBCC) for arrest diversion, and local schools began using SBCC as an alternative to arrest for school-based offenses.

Furthermore, youth voluntarily remained in the program well beyond the duration of their mandate; and when we engaged family members, the young people demonstrated even better results. Our faith and neighborhood partners demonstrated not only a superior ability to engage youth, but to effectively partner with juvenile justice system stakeholders and grow their own organizational capacity.

The success of this grassroots level approach puts a challenge on the table for policy makers.

For years, valuable financial resources that should have been used to support community level interventions have been locked up alongside our youth in failing juvenile prisons.

The concept of justice reinvestment—reinvesting resources spent on prisons in the community—has become popular in states seeking to reduce overreliance on incarceration.

Yet grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations that operate on the front lines in directly affected communities are also the least likely to be the beneficiaries of community reinvestment. Grassroots community leaders are usually the last invited to the table when important policy and practice decisions were being made.

The “credible messengers” who are the most effective at engaging youth and families are not adequately compensated for their work. Juvenile justice reformers pay lip service to community partnerships, while keeping the lion's share of the resources for themselves.

It doesn't have to be like this.

It's time for those serious about building community capacity for juvenile justice reform to make sustained and substantial investments in building community capacity in the neighborhoods hardest hit by incarceration.

Editors Note: For a summary of the SBCC study and a link to the full report, please click here.

Rev. Rubén Austria is the founder and Executive Director of Community Connections for Youth. You can follow him and CCFY on twitter (@rubenaustria, @CC4Y). He welcomes comments from readers.

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