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|January 27, 2012
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Making the right CHOICE: A Comprehensive Program to Reduce Recidivism Among Young Adults At BMC-Roxbury
Young men and women, 17 to 24 and on probation at Boston Municipal Court-Roxbury, have a CHOICE: Get an education, stay out of trouble or risk jail time, according to Probation Officer Edith Alexander.
The CHOICE Program requires offenders who are on administrative and supervised probation to meet with Alexander, attend educational and job training programs as well as appear before Judge Robert Tochka, the architect of the program, to discuss their progress.
Tochka, with Alexander's help, runs CHOICE with the goal of reducing recidivism among the young men and women who frequently appear before the court. Michelle Williams, current Charlestown District Court Chief and former Roxbury Assistant Chief, also helped lay the groundwork for the CHOICE Program which was first introduced two years ago.
This initiative features an intensive three-pronged approach: intensive probation supervision and an in-court component; education and tutorial services; job training and placement; and mentorship. Offenders must also perform community service and participate in the Changing Lives through Literature Program, which introduces offenders to literature and poetry. Probationers, who are parents, must attend Parenting classes at the court. In addition to Probation's key role, CHOICE's collaborators include the District Attorney's Office, Defense Bar and the Clerk's Office.
“We are helping them make life decisions. Everybody makes choices in life and this program gives them the opportunity to make choices that will lead them to a better path in life,” said Judge Tochka. “We have received great support from Chief Justice Charles Johnson. We could never have gotten off the ground without it.”
Alexander meticulously tracks all 60 offenders currently enrolled in the program—checking in regularly with school officials, employment training agencies, and job sites to confirm that offenders are attending school, participating in job training, and/or reporting to work. She maintains an over sized chart with the names of offenders and their hour by hour schedules throughout the day.
“If you don't get your education, you are going to jail,”Alexander said matter-of-factly. “I think there is a therapeutic value to the program. Also, having them come to court each day and holding them accountable is a huge deterrent. Very few are on the re-offending track. If they are in high school, they have to graduate from high school or earn their GED. If they have already graduated from high school, they have to consider community college or job training.”
Offenders must also meet with a group of volunteers that address their educational and legal issues.
Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Adam Foss is one of the volunteers who works with the offenders on an almost daily basis. The other volunteers include Sam Robinson, a retired private school administrator, who helps offenders with their educational needs such as assisting with school enrollment or finding a tutor for an offender who is struggling academically. Anna Brickman of the CPCS (Committee for Public Counsel Services) helps probationers with legal defense matters.
“I am basically helping them navigate what we take for granted in everyday life and teaching them about persistence and follow-up. I may take them to enroll in school or walk them through the process of applying for a job,” Foss said.
Each offender is also matched with a mentor and is required to participate in a 12-week mentorship program run by Assistant Clerk Magistrate Dana Rutherford who together with Judge Tochka came up with the idea for this component. Rutherford; Rashaan Hall, a civil rights attorney at the Boston Bar Association; and Ra'Shaun Nalls, a social worker; facilitates this segment of the program.
“I was the clerk for Judge Tochka and I just got sick of seeing young men in the dock and going to jail. I thought if they had someone to talk to, someone who took an interest in them, and showed them that it is all about the choices they make, it might make a difference,” Rutherford said.
The mentorship program, set to begin its next session in February, meets every Thursday at the court where offenders learn interview skills, how to tie a tie, as well as participate in discussions about how to change their behavior. The sessions also feature guest speakers. In February, Rutherford, Hall, Nalls and Kevin Thomas, a motivational speaker and businessman who refers to himself as “The Big Motivator,” will lead the mentorship sessions.
Ekilisandro Teixeira, a 24-year-old Roxbury resident, is a graduate of the CHOICE program which he credits for “giving me a second chance.”
“The program was fair. It gave me a second chance without me having to be incarcerated. My Probation Officer made sure I did what I needed to do. I participated in the STRIVE Program which helped me find a job,” Teixiera said. “A lot of people have excuses. They say 'I can't find a program.' I threw my excuses out. My family feels pretty good about it. I get along much better with my father now.”
Karimah Braithwaite, 19, said the CHOICE program has helped her.
“It has helped me stay focused and finish school. They are helping me find work and housing and it's better than going to jail. There's no way around it. It helps people get focused,” said Braithwaite, a mother of two children with a third due in February.
At a recent in-court session, CHOICE participants filed into session where they spoke about their progress and many requested an hour extension on their curfews.
Judge Tochka greeted each offender and spoke to them with the familiarity that has developed during the program.
One probationer asked, “How were your holidays?”
Judge Tochka responded, “How were your holidays and how is your Mom? You are looking good. Are you taking your medication, you don't seem to have that edge?”
The judge congratulated another offender who took the initiative to find a culinary training program on his own.
“That's great, fantastic, hugely important,” the judge said.
When the offender asked for his curfew to be extended from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Judge Tochka explained,"We'll make it 9 p.m. And I will check to make sure that you are moving in the right direction.”
Chief Justice Charles Johnson of the BMC lauded the program, “CHOICE is a fine example of dedicated Trial Court employees finding creative ways to help those entwined in our criminal system overcome some of the the systemic barriers to a quality life. Judge Tochka and all those associated with the program should be proud of their compassionate and transformative work.”
BMC-Roxbury First Justice David Weingarten commented on CHOICE's impact.
“I am really thrilled about the CHOICE Program. It is like a dream to have a judge do a lot more work to intensely supervise people in the community. This is not just punitive. People respond positively to constructive criticism and smart attention to them.
There are a combination of important things. More court involvement, supervision, concrete goals, and steps to reach those goals,” said First Justice Weingarten.
He added, “Change can occur in a community: one person and accomplishment at a time. People have a CHOICE and everyone should have the opportunity to make choices about how they live.”
Anthony Gully, BMC-Roxbury Chief Probation Officer, concurred, “I am happy that CHOICE has found a home here at Roxbury Court. It's the right program at the right time, at the right place. The community is better off. Evidence will show that recidivism will decrease. I am grateful to everyone who plays a role in the CHOICE Program.”