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HEART of The Matter: At the Crossroads Of Saving Lives

by Al-Nisa Banks, Buffalo Challenger
Wed, Aug 7th 2013 09:35 pm

HEART of the Matter

A winning partnership at the Crossroads of changing young lives

We are in jeopardy of losing an entire generation of young black men. Will we lose the next two or three?

Do we stand to lose every one hereafter to the streets, negative media, poor education, unemployment, father absence, crime, violence and death? Western New York continues to reign as one of the most heavily impacted areas in New York State for court-involved youth. Erie County reported 4,243 juvenile arrests and Buffalo City Court 16,671, ages 16-21, arrested January 2009 - December 2012.

Buffalo City Court Judge James A.W. McLeod and Umar Adeyola, founder of the HEART (Helping Empower At Risk Teens) Foundation, are diligently taking ownership of some of these problems to save more lives. Through collaboration, innovation, intervention, and a leap of faith, they're making a dramatic difference in redirecting a cyclical tide of destruction.

Back in 2009, Judge McLeod saw a significant spike in the number of cases for non-violent lesser offenses—stealing, vagrancy, minor drug offenses, non-violent felonies and misdemeanors. Frustrated with how traditional courts managed young adult cases, he commissioned a three-month analysis of offenders which showed many had special needs that were not or could not be adequately addressed. "Their needs were complex," describes Judge McLeod.  "Many had a number of problems concurrently, including substance abuse, mental health, lack of emotional support, education deficits, behavioral and developmental issues."

Scores of young adults in Buffalo struggle daily against severe poverty, gang activity and few job opportunities. Research shows the links between poverty, crime and violence are consistent while compelling. "Mass incarceration, particularly when so many young black males are involved in the criminal justice system, hurts our families and communities on so many different levels," says Dr. Ron Stewart, professor of sociology at SUNY Buffalo State. "So many sub-system relationships are severed across the board—father and son, wife and husband, father and daughter, mom and dad—severely lessening the chances of black youth from being productive, viable members of society."

To address the significant increase in young adults entering the criminal justice system, Judge McLeod spearheaded the creation "Crossroads", an alternative to incarceration program strategically designed to break the cycle between criminality and re-arrest rates.

This innovative, judicial problem-solving approach forged a collaborative effort between Buffalo City Courts, Buffalo Public Schools and HEART (Helping Empower At Risk Teens), an east side community-based organization that provides healing opportunities for at risk youth and families.

HEART was selected as the lead agency to work strategically with the courts program to design and implement the program incorporating structured case management. "We believe every young person who comes to HEART has powerful potential and deserve support," explains Umar Adeyola, HEART founder.  "In traditional courtrooms, judges and court staff often don't have the specialized resources to address problems affecting offenders, such as drug addiction, mental illness and family dysfunction, which in many cases are the root of the offenses."

HEART partnered with Judge McLeod and Buffalo City Court to enhance its ability to connect offenders to culturally sensitive services. "We have licensed therapists and psychiatrists highly trained in meeting their needs," notes Adeyola. "Many of them grew up and live in the community, and are using their advanced collegiate studies and life experiences to make a difference."     

As an ex-offender, transformation is a tenet Adeyola knows all too well after serving time in the criminal justice system. "Mistakes should be forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.  My mistakes have now become my strengths. My family and I paid dearly for some very bad decisions I made earlier in my life but people deserve a second chance. I've completely turned my life around," he admits.  "I've worked extremely hard for several years to have a productive, transformative effect on this community." 

"This is a prime example of an ex-offender adding value and having the guts to do so," says Dr. Dennis Kimbro, world-renowned educator, best-selling author, and business school professor characterized universally as an authority on leadership. "Ex-offenders re-entering society should demand this level of excellence from themselves and we should expect it from them," added Dr. Kimbro whose latest release, The Wealth Choice: Success Secrets of Black Millionaires, is the bestselling business book among African Americans. "Applying for a job and checking yes for convicted felon is not the end of the world, there are things that you can still do. You don't get a life with what you want, you get a life with what you expect. Start with what you have, knowing that what you have is plenty and work from there. When you make a difference in your community someone is going to notice you."

The results are in.  Based on an independent, two-year analysis by Recovery Solutions, Crossroads is receiving superior marks and statewide recognition for producing an exceptionally low 13 percent recidivism rate compared to the 57 percent rate statewide. The program's success earned HEART a portion of a $2 million Latino Coalition federal contract to provide services to ex-offenders and high school drop outs earlier this year.

To date, more than 1,300 youth have received case management and supportive services through Judge McLeod's Crossroads program. TheBuffalo News lauded it for giving teens crucial faith in themselves. "The cost of Crossroads' support is a pittance compared with the cost of locking someone up," reported urban affairs columnist Rod Watson. "But beyond the money saved, it dispels the myth that these are throwaway kids who want nothing better."

"Going to jail should be a last resort after exhausting other avenues of intervention like the outstanding clinical services provided at HEART.  The Crossroads program gives young adults a chance and that's what we want," points out Dr. Ron Stewart.  "The steps Judge McLeod has taken to make a difference in my view are heroic and should be encouraged and supported throughout this community. This is an exemplary model of what we need to be doing with young people as opposed to warehousing them."   

"Judge McLeod has been a driving force and trailblazer in developing this groundbreaking initiative," praises Adeyola. "He's fighting hard to infuse new thinking, building multiple off-ramps and continues to assist court-involved youth with much-needed educational, occupational and health services at every stage of the justice system. Crossroads has a significant impact on young people, families and ultimately saving this community."



New York State should pass legislation to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 so that youth who are charged with a crime are treated in more age appropriate manner.


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