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Reclaiming the lives of hundreds of young people a year, Avenues for Justice is one of history's most successful -- and cost-effective -- methods for crime prevention.
In 1979, Avenues for Justice first reached into some crowded Manhattan criminal courtrooms and found kids who might turn their lives around if they only had a second chance. What AFJ did next was unheard of. We presented the courts with an option: instead of sentencing youth to jail, judges could send them to AFJ for counseling, training, education and employment assistance.
That simple tactic -- keep kids out of prison -- has saved the lives of hundreds of young people every year for more than three decades. At a time when the U.S. incarceration rate is the highest of any nation in the world and a cycle of arrests and imprisonment has become the norm within many low-income communities, AFJ has bucked the trend to become one of history's most successful and cost-effective crime prevention programs.
Saving Kids, Saving Taxes
--It costs about $388,000 a year to put a kid in a New York City juvenile detention center for a year, and only 25% remain crime-free when they get out.
--It costs only $4,200 a year to keep a kid in Avenues for Justice, and 90% of program graduates never commit another crime.
How does AFJ do it? At two youth centers -- one on the Lower East Side and one in East Harlem -- juvenile offenders (and other kids who have been identified as at-risk) get a chance to leave foolish mistakes behind them and cultivate previously hidden talents that lead to a new life without prison or crime. With each referral from the court or the community, our staff devises a personalized plan for reform -- enrolling clients in educational, job-readiness, and recreational programs at our community centers -- and we regularly give progress reports to the court.
Stopping Crime Without Prison
Avenues for Justice addresses the problems that get kids into trouble. It could be a family issue, a drug habit, alcohol abuse, or illiteracy. Or maybe a need for counseling, job training, tutoring, or an outlet like art classes. Sometimes they just need a place to live, food, and clothing. Whatever the problem, we can almost always find a way to help. Then something amazing happens - the kids don't get into trouble again.
Timing is critical. While most children have a pretty tough game face, they are still "children" in an important sense and thus more open to positive intervention and influence than they will be when they're a little older. This window of opportunity is fleeting, all the more reason to act quickly – before that youthful offender has become a career criminal.
"My focus is to educate the world -- parents, judges, lawyers -- that something else can be done other than throwing young people away in our correctional systems," says executive director Angel Rodriguez, a co-founder of the program. "When they're between 13 and 21, it's easier for kids to make changes in their lives. If we keep them in school and working and engaged in positive things, we can keep them out of prison. And they'll be productive."
AFJ's three primary goals:
1. Intervene and reclaim young people from lives of crime
2. Give the overloaded court system a reliable alternative to incarceration
3. Make the Lower East Side and East Harlem communities safer for everyone
Working out of donated office space in the Manhattan Criminal Court, AFJ gets 90% of its funding from private sources. The flexibility afforded by that private funding has greatly contributed to the success rate. Avenues for Justice doesn't have to cut off support for clients at an arbitrary age level. We continue to work with them even when they cross an age line which theoritically defines adulthood. This increases our effectiveness, ultimately making our clients more successful.
We celebrate the fact that our success has made so many lives better, not just for the youths who get a new start but for everyone in the economically challenged New York City neighborhoods where we live and work. Every contribution -- large and small -- helps AFJ stop crime. To help a young person stay crime-free, donate now.
For more about Avenue for Justice's success, read the independent study: The Philliber Report.
Photo: Marty Umans