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In Baltimore, a fight to give juvenile offenders an economic lifeline

December 18, 2014, 6:38 PM UTC
Photograph by Amy Kaslow

Cheryl Riviere drums her polished nails on the table, irritated that so many students are late. It’s mid-morning at Fresh Start, a trade skills-GED program that allows Baltimore’s 16 to 19-year-old boys a chance to avoid being tried as adults for felonies and misdemeanors. Showing up on time is a strict requirement of the 40-week experience.

The students, who are mostly referred to the program by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, sign a contract that spells out the consequences of non-compliance. Although the program is designed to be 10 months, it is nearly always extended for one student violation or another. Repeated tardiness could mean dismissal and placement in “the [criminal justice] system,” where, nationwide, 250,000 youth face prosecution as adults each year. But this morning, only a little over half of the 19 enrollees have clocked in for the carpentry-life skills GED class that Riviere oversees.

She’s heard every excuse, and then there are the realities: long commutes on public transportation, parentless households where no one is accountable, and constant distractions from family, friends, and others.

Fresh Start students’ offenses include assault, attempted murder, and robbery as well as non-violent crimes, such as drug possession and sale, and resisting arrest. “We are the last stop before long-term placement or incarceration,” says Riviere, whose eyes follow one of the young arrivals as he opens his locker to change into shop gear. She calls out to him, asking if he’s seen one of the other students. Pulling a collared shirt over his baggy jeans, he shakes his head.

Of the 20 million-plus unemployed or under-employed Americans, the Fresh Start student with a rap sheet represents the toughest group to bring into the productive economy. He competes with the broader group of non-criminal 16 to 24 year-olds who have suffered jobless rates (currently at 14.3%) twice as high as the general population (5.9%), along with widespread employment barriers for those with past offenses.

Riviere’s staff – social workers, life skills coaches, military officers, and educators – put in long hours. Among them is Jim Reeb, who retired as a U.S. Army officer and went straight to Living Classrooms, Fresh Start’s parent organization, for what he considers the ultimate mentoring job, working alongside hundreds of students as a trainer, confidant, and conscience. Reeb uses carpentry as a means to teach traditional academic subjects—reading, writing, math, science, and history.

Fresh Start's Cheryl Riviere
Fresh Start’s Cheryl RivierePhoto by Amy Kaslow
Photograph by Amy Kaslow

Students learn how to build specialty cutting boards to small boats, and they sell their wares at street markets and to private customers, “We’re not training woodworkers,” Reeb declares. “We’re training good workers. Life skills, academics, social skills.” They begin to follow safety procedures, to show respect to elders and peers, to manage their time, and work in teams. This is all new to the high school dropouts, some of whom are at the fourth grade reading level and have spent far more time on the streets than in the classroom. And once they graduate, they are guaranteed a full-time job with one of the employers that 27-year old Fresh Start has on its partner roster.

Walk inside the cavernous facility on South Caroline Street in Baltimore’s inner harbor and the daily purpose is abundantly clear. The young men are surrounded by positive prompts, from their personalized toolboxes to the poster-sized images of African American leaders. Their sightline includes not only lists of posted rules and expectations, but also pictures of success. Life-size headshots of graduates, framed in wood, line the second floor balcony that surrounds and overhangs the main workspace. Supervisors often point to a certain graduate photo as the image of trouble-turned-triumph.

The curriculum, which includes one-on-one tutoring, places a premium on self-reliance and demonstrates how academic skills can be used in a work setting. Of those who make it through (roughly a third do), the future looks bright: three quarters of the graduates remain employed and in school for three years after completion of the program.

Their pathways are littered with obstacles. Aside from carrying a criminal record, many of the program’s participants carry other burdens: family lives rife with substance abuse and violence; homelessness; children born of young teenagers they’ve impregnated.

Some students say they are humbled by the challenges they confront. But there is plenty of bravado. Many of the students assume that the program is just a way to bide time until temptation is too much to resist and they wind up on the street again or incarcerated. Their adult supervisors are keenly aware of the startling recidivism rates for youth offenders who join the general prison population. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections data shows that youth transferred to the adult corrections system are more likely to become repeat criminal offenders than those kept in the juvenile criminal justice system.

The young men, says Riviere, lack the basics. “How to hold a fork and knife, how to hold a pencil properly, how to communicate. Most of the time, they’ve never had a trusted, social, emotional bond with anyone.”

Riviere, Reeb, and their colleagues have created an environment of expectation and mutual respect. They aren’t harsh, but they certainly don’t coddle the students. In subtle ways, the adults recognize that these students, no matter their experience, are still children. A staffer emerges from his office holding an open plastic sack of candy. He extends it to a slender boy named Darin. “Take one,” he instructs him. “Me?” Darin asks tentatively, slowly breaking into a smile. “Yes,” says the staffer with a half smile, “You had perfect attendance last week.” Darin reaches in and picks out a piece and examines it. “Wait, wait! Can I have a red one, instead?”

Darin Mayo, 17, comes from East Baltimore, a high-crime part of the city, where many generations of the majority black population live in poverty. Locals refer to the area as “The Middle East,” where the violent crime rate is 36% higher than the Baltimore city average, which is 194% higher than the Maryland state average, according to the livability rating website

“There’s a lot of drugs on the street,” says Mayo, who explains that Juvenile Services sent him here when he accumulated a number of misdemeanor charges, including public disturbance and resisting arrest. Mayo says he started smoking pot at age nine, failed ninth grade twice, and left school at 15. His mother, he says, “has a disability” (a euphemism, it turns out, for a heroin addiction); he met his father for the first time just four years ago. Relatives moved Mayo from place to place. “Fresh Start helped me mature. When I get out of college, I want to do human services work for Catholic Charities or join the Peace Corps,” to help people right their lives. Mayo says he’s had good conversations with one of the Fresh Start volunteers he regularly consults for wisdom and career advice. After he finishes the day in the wood shop, he boards a series of busses to his job at a big box store outside the city. He plans to continue to work and attend college before he ventures across the world.

Mayo retrieves the piece of candy he’s just popped into his mouth and holds it up, between his thumb and index finger, “Baltimore—compared to the rest of the world—is the size of a Jolly Rancher. You gotta think outside the box. Outside the ‘hood. Outside the city. Outside the ghetto.”

Like inner city residents across the country, few of the Fresh Start students or their families have the resources to venture outside their urban environment. Part of the Living Classrooms Foundation’s expansive three-acre campus located along Baltimore’s inner harbor, Fresh Start offers a chance to work and learn along the waterfront, a welcome change for youth whose only recreational outlet is often in concrete parks wedged in between housing projects.

Living Classrooms draws support from the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Youth Employment Coalition, which have examined the project and tracking data and labeled it as highly effective. Riviera and Reeb see Fresh Start as replicable, and scalable. But, they say in tandem, “it’s expensive.” Living Classrooms spend roughly $18,000 per student for each ten-month program.

Baltimore is in dire need of even more programs like Living Classrooms, says Ivan Leshinsky, executive director of the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development based in Baltimore’s high-crime Brooklyn area. Sitting in a 10,000 square foot building that, until this past June, served as CCYD’s alternative school for dropouts and others who fell through the cracks, Leshinsky laments the shrinking of state resources for at-risk youth. “As federal resources shrink, state and municipal government agencies hold on to their money to pay for their own programs, rather than making important investments in smaller organizations that are better positioned to get at the root of local problems.” The government agencies “cannot even get close to the effectiveness of non-profits,” says Leshinsky, adding that community-based programs draw on “community pride” and help from board members, volunteers, and social workers who become “surrogate parents, mentors, and support systems that these kids need to improve their prospects.”

Fortifying the economy’s weakest link requires more than small-scale or “boutique” programs, contends Jason Cohen, executive director of Baltimore’s Job Opportunities Task Force. He wants the city, the state of Maryland, and the country at large to adopt a systemic approach toward skilling up and employing youth offenders. It’s dangerous enough to spurn the ex-offender seeking gainful employment, he says, given the options he has left: the underground economy, crime, and a lifetime of public assistance. Cohen argues that discriminatory hiring policies put public safety in greater jeopardy.

In recent weeks, the White House has issued a string of public pronouncements detailing its commitment to providing the under- and unemployed rapid access to available jobs. The declarations don’t seem to resonate with residents of Perkins Homes, the longest standing public housing compound in Baltimore. Just a few short blocks from the Living Classrooms campus, the Perkins/Middle East residential region ranks No. 53 out of Baltimore’s 55 neighborhoods (number 1 being the best) in juvenile arrest rates and in kindergarten readiness—a grim picture for the area’s youth.

For the nation’s under-served communities, the most vexing issue is how to give young people a fair chance, much less a leg up. As many as a third of all Americans – between 70 million and 100 million people – have some type of criminal record. Some are minor offenses; others are arrests without conviction; yet all constitute criminal histories that repel the vast majority of employers.

Fresh Start has students from the Perkins neighborhood, and Living Classroom runs an after-school program as well as evening GED classes in the old Perkins district fire station—now a community center. From their windows, front stoops, and packed dirt courtyards, Perkins residents view uniform mid-rise red brick buildings, as far as the eye can see. Plans to raze the buildings have been on and off again over the years, and community activists have grave concerns about future homelessness. What the six-block radius of Perkins Homes does need is an infusion of investment to prepare young Perkins residents to find their way out of poverty.

One way to help restless jobless youth is to train them for public works projects, says Cohen. Local and state governments are stepping up badly needed infrastructure spending, and Baltimore is no exception. It will spend several billion dollars on light-rail and school construction in the next few years. Training and employing Fresh Start graduates will send a strong message to the private sector that local leaders are turning an economic risk into an asset. But first, the government should lead the way by reforming its own bias against hiring ex-offenders, Cohen says.

Most local economies have at least one anchor, both public and private enterprises that create a substantial employment base. In Baltimore, it’s Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions (JHMI), with a combined payroll of more than 33,000. JHMI reaches into the city’s neighborhoods to train future workers from the most at-risk populations. “We’ve been working with the ex-offender population for a long time,” says Michele Sedney, senior director, for central recruitment services at Johns Hopkins Health System. Partnering with non-profits and grassroots groups like Catholic Charities’ Our Daily Bread, Baltimore’s biggest employer conducts mock interviews with at-risk clients and eventually interviews them for positions. “There are opportunities for us to help give individuals a second chance when other organizations might not,” says Sedney.

JHMI has a dedicated background screener, a former police officer, who investigates each of the prospective hire’s rap sheet on a “case by case basis,” Sedney says, adding: “We take into account the offense, how long ago it was, what position the individual is being hired for…”

This past August, Baltimore City enacted “Ban the Box” legislation, effectively removing the criminal background question from job applications. Sedney says that JHMI is intent on giving applicants a second chance: “While we could have … continued to ask criminal background-related questions on our application, we made a decision to not take the exemption. We removed the questions from the employment application.” JHMI’s offers of employment are contingent upon background checks of all kinds and the screener’s discretion.

Back at Fresh Start, the end of each day brings program leaders and students into a large circle on the shop floor, for some truth telling. “If Rayquan Williams is late one more time,” warns Riviere, “we’ll see him in September, maybe December” to start the program all over again.

“I’d like to recognize Jerome, who really hustled today. He showed others how to do it,” says Reeb. Jerome shifted his feet and grinned. He looked across the circle at Reeb, who looked right back.

“Leadership is not defined by seniority, or by how long you’ve been around,” piped in another male supervisor. “I don’t want you to be motivated by the threat of termination,” he tells the students. “I want you to be motivated by the opportunity to do what you came here to pursue.”