The Common Good
September/October 2007

Goodness of Mercy

by Jonathan Mendez | September/October 2007

BronxConnect shows there's a better alternative to throwing youth in jail.

Criminal behavior in youth is a vicious cycle. Young people who have done jail time are much less able to find employment or to bond with law-abiding peers, increasing their likelihood of re-engaging in crime. Alternatives to incarceration—programs that keep young offenders in their communities—are a better way to strike at the roots of criminal behavior. In New York City, more than a dozen such programs work with court-involved youth; nationwide are dozens more.

One of the most effective alternative models, and one of the few faith-based programs in New York, is BronxConnect, which prevents about 75 teens per year from being sentenced to a detention facility far from their families. Between 2001 and 2004, 86 percent of its participants completed the one-year mentoring program without being rearrested. In contrast, the Department of Juvenile Justice reports that in 2006, 43 percent of the teens admitted into their detention facilities were readmitted in the same year.

About half of BronxConnect participants were involved in violent crimes (in New York, robbery is considered violent whether there is physical harm done or not); most of the other half committed drug-related crimes. But judges in all cases think the young offenders deserve a second chance.

When youths first arrive at BronxConnect, each one develops an individually customized strategy plan with their case manager and a mentor, who comes from the program's vast local church network. A plan might include anger-management classes, therapeutic attention, team sports, music production, and martial arts, among other possibilities.

The mandatory parts of the program are modest: meeting with the mentor for a few hours a week and with a case manager weekly to discuss the strategy plan. Participants usually find a sense of community and understanding at BronxConnect and choose to come to the program more often than they are required to, according to executive director Ruben Austria.

REVERSING THE CYCLE of criminal behavior doesn't happen overnight; thus case managers do everything in their power to support participants, making sure that they are attending school, checking with parents to confirm that participants come home on time, and ensuring that they check in with the judge on schedule.

BronxConnect also takes the initiative to keep teens' interest engaged. For example, when participant "Damon" grew disillusioned with the program in the middle of his 10-week anger management class, his case manager took the trouble to find out that Damon was into hip-hop. The manager connected him with a local group to teach him hip-hop history, the elements that make good rhymes and lyrics, and even how to produce his own music.

The BronxConnect program plans to open a charter school in the Bronx. It is also expanding its entrepreneurial programs by buying computers so that youth can produce music and learn graphic design and then sell the CDs, T-shirts, and postcards they make.

Rehabilitative programs like BronxConnect are very cost-effective; the price of incarcerating a teen is enormously higher than sending a teen to the program. New York City forked out $468 a day per incarcerated teen last year, for an average jail term of 27 days. BronxConnect costs about $5,000 a year per participant (which would be less than $14 per day).

Yet "the funding pool for this work is actually pretty small," Austria told Sojourners. A disproportionate amount of state and local funding goes toward incarceration and detention rather than alternatives. Last year in New York City, $98.4 million went toward keeping kids locked up, while only $1 million of the Department of Juvenile Justice budget went toward alternatives.

The example of BronxConnect suggests another path. With court-involved youth, mercy just works better than retribution.

Jonathan Mendez is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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