UTEC and Roca are two Massachusetts-based organizations that are national models for reducing the cycle of violence and incarceration among 17-24 year olds, the age group with the highest recidivism rates.[1] This is part one of a two-part series; a second article will focus on Roca.

Case study: Jared. Jared, 24, was tried as an adult as a 17-year old and sentenced to prison for six years. He became involved with UTEC after his release last year. Jared came to UTEC every day and after a year, he received his HiSET high school equivalency. After many hours spent in UTEC’s woodworking program, Jared is now learning cabinet design, a trade that will enable him to find full-time work. With help from UTEC, Jared also was able to find a renovated studio apartment in downtown Lowell. He takes part in UTEC’s series of life skills workshops and plans to save enough to buy a car.

UTEC (formerly known as United Teen Equality Center) serves justice-involved 17-24 year-olds living in Lowell and Lawrence.  

Founded in 1999 by Lowell youth with the City of Lowell and the Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association as a way to decrease gang violence, UTEC now works with young people to complete their high school education, as well as obtain job skills, housing, and other support services. UTEC also works with other youth groups to advocate for criminal justice reforms impacting court-involved 17-24 year olds.

Nearly 170 youth per year receive active and intensive case management. UTEC’s goals are three-fold: to reduce recidivism, increase employability, and improve educational attainment for the young people enrolled in its programs. UTEC works with youth through any set-backs, which are considered to be inevitable and part of a young person’s overall growth and improvement.

UTEC cafe vistors
Café UTEC: Lowell Representatives Rady Mom, David Nangle (fourth and fifth from left) and Tom Golden (seventh from left) meet with UTEC staff and youth.

 

UTEC and the Trial Court. UTEC is committed to building long-term partnerships with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. “We want to show that UTEC is a viable option to incarceration,” says Gregg Croteau, UTEC’s Executive Director.

Over the past 16 years, UTEC has built a relationship with probation officers from the District and Juvenile Courts. UTEC and the Probation Department in Lowell meet monthly. Probation officers and judges also come to the center to visit Café UTEC and meet informally. 

Both Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey and Juvenile Court Chief Justice Amy Nechtem serve on UTEC’s advisory council. “From a public safety perspective, the Trial Court is a committed to improving long-term outcomes for young adults involved in the justice system,” says Chief Justice Carey. “The data shows that UTEC consistently connects in meaningful ways with proven-risk youth. We see encouraging results through UTEC’s efforts to educate and prepare young people for re-entry into society and into the workforce - ultimately helping them stay out of the court system for good.” 

"The work UTEC does with youthful offenders has greatly benefited Probation, as well as young people, most of whom have already been on probation and/or parole at some point in their lives,” says Lowell District Court Chief Probation Officer Steven Mastandrea. “UTEC's programs help keep young people off the streets and give them structure, skills, and a sense of purpose, therefore benefitting the community as a whole."

UTEC executives chat with Chief Justice Carey
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey chats with UTEC's Director of Policymaking Geoffrey Foster and Executive Director Gregg Croteau at the groundbreaking for the new Lowell Justice Center.

 

Step 1: Engagement. Nine to 12 months prior to their release from jail, UTEC Streetworkers meet with incarcerated young people to help prepare them for their transition to the outside world. On release day UTEC workers pick them up and bring them to the center.  

UTEC’s center, located a block away from the Lowell District Court, was built as a 19th century church. The modernized space features classrooms and meeting spaces, a gym, recording studio, and a café that teaches culinary and customer service skills as part of UTEC’s social enterprise model for youth employment.

UTEC is also active on the street. Jonathan Lunde is UTEC’s Director of Streetwork. He and his team earn the trust of gang members and others on the street slowly, through concerted outreach efforts that can take years to develop.

“We want to be there at critical moments in people’s lives,” says Mr. Lunde. It takes patience – through multiple interactions, or what UTEC calls “chipping away” – to get the toughest gang members through the center’s doors. But once they do, UTEC participants become actively involved with the center for the next four to five years. 

Step 2: Building work-life skills. New participants start in UTEC’s mattress recycling social enterprise, where up to a dozen young people at a time take their first steps in a structured work environment. Each new recruit is paired with a Transitional Coach youth worker to help them stay on track. The facility, located in an old mill building in Lawrence, is often the first job experience for some 70 newly-enrolling young people each year.

Based on a young person’s performance and attitude, they will graduate from the mattress recycling social enterprise to full enrollment in the holistic programs offered at the center, where they spend at least half of their time gaining more work experience in another social enterprise: UTEC Food Services, which includes both catering and Café UTEC, or UTEC Woodworking, with its own shop. More than 80% of UTEC youth don’t have a high school credential, so UTEC also offers onsite HiSET (GED) preparation classes, in addition to other personal and professional development and the intensive support services of the Transitional Coach staff mentors. Youth also earn industry-recognized credentials including OSHA and ServSafe certifications.

UTEC is expanding. The center is nearing completion on renovations on a 3-story building next door. As part of a two-generation approach, this new space will feature an early-childhood education center for the children of UTEC youth; nearly half of UTEC’s participants are also young parents. The building will also include a second commercial-grade kitchen focused on prepared foods, with Whole Foods Market as a key partner. UTEC’s woodworking enterprise is currently focused on the production of cutting boards and display boxes for Whole Foods Market stores in the region.

A future for Jared.  In the meantime, UTEC continues to instill a sense of purpose and hope with the young people who participate in the Center’s programs. “I feel like I have a future now,” says Jared. “I came out of prison with $800 that I had earned working there – you earn a dollar a day in prison, plus interest – and six t-shirts. Now I have a high school diploma, someplace decent to live, and the chance of learning a trade that will help me in life.”



 

By the numbers: UTEC1

Annual FY16 Budget: $4.5 million

In FY162, UTEC served 168 enrolled youth, of whom…

  • 86% had a criminal record
  • 80% had no high school credential
  • 77% were gang-involved
  • 44% were pregnant / parenting

95% had more than one of the four above risk criteria; including 14% who had all four.

Last year, 98% of youth served had no new convictions. UTEC’s long-term outcomes are also strong.

Outcomes (FY163): Two years after leaving UTEC…

  • 89% of youth who left UTEC programming had not been arrested.
  • 82% who left UTEC programming were employed.
  • 24% who engaged in UTEC’s HiSET (GED) classes obtained a high school credential last year.


[1] Source: UTEC-lowell.org as of September 26, 2016.

[3] https://www.utec-lowell.org/impact as of October 13, 2016.