Community Connections for Youth: CJII Featured Grantee

Posted in: Blog

Posted on December 12, 2017

Community Connections for Youth works with grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations to empower them to develop effective community driven alternatives to incarceration for youth. CCFY believes that increasing local community capacity to work with youth in the justice system is the key to reducing youth crime and delinquency, and improving long-term life outcomes for youth. We spoke with Rev. Rubén Austria, Executive Director, about some of the challenges facing youth and how CJII is supporting their work to address those challenges.

This article is the part of our series highlighting CJII grantees and the work they’re doing to meet CJII goals of improving public safety and enhancing fairness and efficiency in NYC’s criminal justice system. Programs that support families and that prevent risky behavior in young people can encourage and support positive development and reduce the likelihood of involvement in the justice system. Through its Youth Opportunity Hubs initiative, CJII is focusing on building skills and supports among young people, families, and communities to help prevent crime because investing in efforts that prevent criminality is key to achieving public safety in the long term.

Q: How do you see the role of partnerships and coordinating services in achieving impact? In your experience, and as you develop the Youth Opportunity Hub at Community Connections for Youth, how are you building partnerships to ensure sustainability?

A: For us, the only way to sustain this work over the long term is for it to be completely owned and operated by the local community. It can’t be dependent on a government agency or a single service provider or a funder, or it will die out as soon as that entity is no longer involved. It’s got to live at the grassroots level, with neighbors, family members, churches, and local businesses—all of the entities that will continue to be part of the fabric of a neighborhood long after a grant ends. That’s why we’re investing heavily in partnerships with faith-based institutions in Harlem, especially churches that have been serving the community for decades or even in a century. We’re investing in home grown community leaders born and raised in Harlem who have started organizations to help the youth. We’re investing heavily into training this entire network of people to work effectively with youth in the justice system. We think that if we can get a critical mass of people in the community to collectively do two things—facilitate restorative justice circles with youth when harm has been caused; and provide positive youth development programming around the clock—we can virtually eliminate the need for criminal justice intervention.

Q: What are some of the potential solutions you aim to provide with the CJII funding to support young people and help them succeed

A: One of the best things about the CJII funding is that it creates resources for interventions for young people and families that aren’t dependent on criminal justice involvement. We’ve long lamented with parents who say: “why did it take my son being charged with a felony for him to finally get some help?” The CJII funding gives us the opportunity to intervene earlier before a young person is so deeply entrenched in criminal activity that an indictment is inescapable. For example, we know right now that there are young people who are the younger brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and neighbors of the gang members who were removed from the community after the last takedown. They’re right on the cusp of deciding whether to fill the void that’s left in the street economy. The CJII funding lets us engage them right now with mentoring, family support, education, jobs, and other real opportunities that will keep them from simply replicating the cycle of crime and incarceration in their neighborhood.

Q: What are some of the opportunities that young people are looking for, and what are some of the obstacles or challenges in trying to access those opportunities?

A: We work with young people and families who are impacted by the criminal and juvenile justice systems. They come with any number of issues that are common in all communities, but what’s clear is that far more resources have been put into policing and punishing them than giving them support and opportunity. A typical case might be a young person with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) who hasn’t been getting the right support in school. He’s acting out and keeps getting suspended. While he’s out of school, he starts hanging out with older guys from the neighborhood who are involved in criminal activity, and eventually he’s arrested for an assault or a robbery. When we meet a young person like this, we usually find out that his mother has been trying to get help for him for some time, but nobody offered real help—until he was arrested. We constantly ask the question “what would happen if the positive supports were resourced at the same level as the punitive system that only gets involved after a crime has been committed?” We’re trying to change the way communities engage young people so that the criminal justice system doesn’t have to be the first responder to these issues.

Q: What are some of the real challenges in trying to remove or overcome those obstacles?

A: One of the biggest challenges is that there’s a whole system in place to address the perceived risks, needs, and deficiencies of young people and families. This system, both on the juvenile justice side and the child welfare side, has tons of resources—courts, probation officers, anger management programs, drug treatment programs, mental health treatment—but all of these services come with the threat of punishment if you don’t comply, and that generates a ton of resistance. Young people and families often don’t engage with the treatment plans generated for them, and then they incur sanctions that further isolate them. From the perspective of the system and the service providers, it looks like they’re just resistant, non-compliant, and don’t want help. But the truth is, none of us want to engage with services that are predicated on what’s wrong with us, or help that comes with the threat of punishment. It takes a lot to overcome these dynamics.

Q: What outcomes have you seen so far and what do you hope to see long term?

A: We’ve seen amazing things happen when the community is given the opportunity to be the first responder to youth crime and delinquency. In the South Bronx, where we did our initial work, we saw that it was possible to mobilize grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations —really small, local, organizations—to engage young people as a diversion from official justice system processing. Not only were young people a third less likely to get re-arrested, they stayed engaged with positive adults and activities long after their formal mandates completed. We saw the same thing when we matched the families of youth on probation with parents who themselves had been impacted by the justice system. These parent peer coaches had a special ability to help youth and families engage with services because they had been through the same thing. We see some of our biggest outcomes with credible messengers—men and women who by virtue of their own past involvement in the justice system are intensively mentoring justice-involved youth. These efforts are reducing felony re-arrests by up to 50 percent and helping to bring down violent crime in entire neighborhoods. I think that if we continue to invest in the communities most impacted by mass incarceration—and especially in the people who have themselves been through it—we can really turn this whole thing around.

Q: Taking a step back, when you consider the Youth Opportunity Hub in the long term—the individuals you’re working with, their needs, community needs, long term outcomes, etc.—how would you say that the work of Community Connections for Youth is reaching toward larger system change? What does that system change look like? What else is needed to achieve larger system change?

A: Our ultimate vision is to see a world where youth incarceration is completely eliminated. We’re working towards a future where there are no kids in cages. What’s happened over the last 30 years or so is that so much investment has been made in criminal justice responses to youthful misbehavior, and very little has gone to build community capacity to serve these young people. Our work at CCFY is to equip local communities to do the work that it always has done and that justice systems were never supposed to do. We can do that through community organizing, training, and providing those interventions and support as soon as we see a young person getting into trouble. But the other side of the equation is that justice systems need to be radically downsized and their resources invested in communities. That takes courageous action from system leaders who will work to reduce their footprint in the community and continually look for ways to turn over the resources and responsibility to community members. We really think a future is possible where there are no youth in prison, if the community is properly resourced to do what it’s supposed to do, which is to engage and support our children, while holding them accountable, in a loving and restorative manner.

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