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Program seeks higher-ed over incarceration, but hurdles remain difficult to clear

When his fellow inmates in a juvenile lockup on Rikers Island first told him about CASES – the abbreviated name for Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services – Antonio*, then 17, paid little attention. “In my mind, it was like, another program — I’m not gonna go,” Antonio said. But once he got in more trouble with the law and ran out of options to secure his release, Antonio reconsidered his standoffish view toward the diversion program. Now 18 years old and in his third semester at Hostos Community College in The Bronx, Antonio is one of CASES’ biggest champions.

After earning his GED through CASES’ Young Adult Scholars program, and then enrolling in the organization’s collegeawareness and skills prep program, Next Steps, Antonio credits CASES with providing crucial financial assistance and guidance to get on track to earn some sort of postsecondary credential, which research shows will be required by about two-thirds of all jobs by 2018.

“We believe that education is one of the best solutions there is for ensuring that court-involved youth have a full range of options and opportunities for economic and social success,” said Yelena Nemoy, project director at National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC), which singled out Next Steps as one of several programs in its Postsecondary Success Initiative that employ “promising practices.”

Antonio does not pretend that his initial reason for getting into CASES was all that noble, or that he had higher education on his mind.

“CASES was like – to tell you the truth – it was the way out [of jail],” Antonio said. “If I never went to CASES, right now I’d probably be locked up,” he said. “There was no other program for me to go to.”

CASES’ Next Steps program, which had enrolled a total 72 participants as of last December, is part of NYEC’s Postsecondary Success Initiative, or PSI.

The initiative supports a national network of 10 community-based organizations that support “formerly disconnected youth and young adults” ages 16 through 24 during transition to and through postsecondary education.

“Next Steps has created a strong collegegoing culture in our youth programs as the program has dramatically increased the college enrollment of our court-involved young people,” said Loyal Miles, director of development at CASES.

Fighting recidivism

The number of young people who could benefit from such services is substantial. Some 1.3 million young people throughout the nation had contact with the 2010, and nearly 71,000 were being held in juvenile facilities, according to the American Youth Policy Forum, which featured CASES in a recent webinar titled “Building Pathways to Postsecondary Education for Youth Involved in the Justice System.”

Of incarcerated young people, only 30 percent are employed or enrolled in school within 12 months of release, and nearly half return to prison within three years, AYPF reports.

While college credit has been elusive among Next Steps participants (see sidebar, page 12), recidivism has been relatively low, CASES officials say, with just two participants re-incarcerated during the course of their participation in the program.

That’s “an extremely low percentage when compared to the 60 percent of offenders under the age of 25 serving felony jail sentences in New York who will be re-convicted of a new crime within five years,” Miles said, citing a statistic contained within an October 2013 “Criminal Justice Technical Report” issued by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Carmen Daugherty, policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice, an Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for various juvenile-justice issues, said postsecondary credentials are particularly important for young people who’ve “already been pushed out of school for various reasons and may lose interest in education.”

“The deeper they go into the system, the harder it may be for them to obtain education,” Daugherty said. “There has to be some sort of continuum of care for these kids.”

One of the most crucial things that organizations can do to help young people who’ve run afoul of the law is to help them acquire the requisite secondary credentials, become more “college ready,” and attain more “college knowledge,” said Nemoy, of NYEC.

Similar thoughts are expressed in NYEC’s report, “Promoting Postsecondary Success of Court-Involved Youth: Lessons From The NYEC Postsecondary Success Pilot:” “Many [young people], particularly those who have been absorbed by the school-to-prison pipeline, have developed negative perceptions of the educational environment,” observe the report authors,

“All of these barriers can cause these students to become frustrated with perceived lack of academic success and with college bureaucracy, causing them to drop out,” the report states.

Overcoming barriers

Antonio is a living testament to that reality. He said he nearly gave up on college the first day he set foot on campus and ran into problems with registration and financial aid.

As he considered quitting before he even started, CASES staff members intervened. A Next Steps staff member helped Antonio set up a payment plan since he was ineligible for full financial aid. CASES staff also provided Antonio with a $500 tuitionassistance scholarship.

“If it wasn’t for that, I probably never would have come back,” Antonio said of his enrollment at Hostos. “I wouldn’t be here, period.”

Although Antonio viewed CASES as a last resort, NYEC considers CASES a leader when it comes to helping court-involved young people into college.

“CASES has developed an approach to assisting participants … in transitioning to college that combines structured, education-focused case management and a strong college-going culture,” states the NYEC report on postsecondary success.

“This approach addresses some of the major barriers to success for CASES students, including lack of services that support educational success, negative identities and self- perceptions, and gaps in college readiness and attachment to education,” the report states.

Investing in the model, Investing in youth

CASES Next Steps’ program received a three-year $500,546 grant from NYEC in 2011 as part of its participation in the PSI.

CASES used the funding to hire a postsecondary education specialist to implement direct services, including ongoing individual case management for all participants in Next Steps and for teaching a college prep class.

Funding from NYEC also supported stipends for books, school supplies and transportation as well as application fees, debt relief, food vouchers and performance incentives for students.

Miles said enrollment in remedial programs, such as CUNY Start, which allows students to meet developmental education requirements prior to enrolling in credit-bearing classes, can be an “effective pathway.”

“This kind of program helps students to fulfill these requirements so that they do not have to enroll in remedial classes that may impact their GPA or that may require the use of financial aid,” Miles said.

However, Miles said, staff at CASES have found that they have to “educate participants on the value of a program like CUNY Start, which many of our students perceive as not being the same as actual college, and their goal is often to get into college as soon as possible.”

To help lessen the reluctance to enroll in programs such as CUNY Start, CASES staff plan to have CUNY Start graduates share their experiences with students in Next Steps, and to have CUNY Start officials advise students about the program’s potential to give them a better shot at graduation.

Some of the money for Next Steps goes toward performance incentives for program participants. The performance incentives have played a crucial role in motivating participants such as Daryl,* a 20-year-old who got involved with CASES in order to get released from jail while facing charges of grand larceny.

“It was exciting,” Daryl said. “It’s not every day you can go get a $500 reward like that for doing something good. It boosts your confidence and makes you want to go harder.”

CASES also augmented the program through funding secured from the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, which enabled the program to help participants get summer jobs to bridge the interim between semesters.

For Antonio, it was a job as an assistant in the SEEK (Search for Education Elevation Knowledge) program at Baruch College. For Daryl, it was delivering and preparing food for a Syrian grill.

Advocates say that securing funding for programs such as CASES will continue to be a challenge since juvenile justice funds at the federal level have continued to decrease.

Antonio, who has been taking courses in public speaking and the Latino experience at Hostos Community College, has arguments at the ready to finance programs such as Next Steps and organizations such as CASES.

“Without CASES, you would have to feed another inmate,” Antonio said, “because I would definitely be a problem if I didn’t have CASES.”

*Names were changed to protect participants’ privacy.