On Thursday, October 15, America Forward will launch “Moving America Forward: Innovators Lead the Way to Unlocking America’s Potential,” a briefing book intended for 2016 Presidential candidates and policymakers at all levels of government who aspire to unlock the potential of all Americans and make our nation, once again, the land of opportunity. This week, America Forward will be featuring solutions from our Coalition of social innovators to address the five challenges of our time laid out in “Moving America Forward.” Today, Molly Baldwin, Founder and CEO of Roca, addresses the “Second Chances” challenge and discusses how Roca is providing those it serves a second chance at a better future.
Second Chances into New Beginnings
Anyone doubtful about the power of second chances should meet Derek Gilmore.
In 2012, twenty-one year old Derek was released from state prison after his drug trafficking conviction was vacated on account of evidence tampering by a rogue forensics technician. What had promised to be a significant stint behind bars for a serious crime—a stint that might have destroyed any chance for a normal adulthood—had, almost overnight, turned into an opportunity for redemption.
Now, three years later, the one-time convict and alleged dealer is a successful professional rising through the ranks of the restaurant industry, travelling out of state to facilitate trainings for new employees as his company scales its operations in new markets. Needless to say, Derek has come a long way in the past few years.
Some might say that Derek simply got lucky. Others might argue he never should have been in jail in the first place. Either way, it’s impossible to deny that his talent, ambition and productivity would have been squandered had he remained behind bars. So what do we take from Derek’s story?
At Roca, we see Derek’s success as yet another example of why the American criminal justice system deserves a significant overhaul—more specifically, why it deserves a vast restructuring of resources that increases supervised and incarcerated young people’s opportunity to gain the behavioral and occupational skills needed to stay out of trouble in the future and become responsible adults.
In many senses, Derek was far more fortunate than most young people coming out of the system. When he got out of prison, Roca was there to help him put his life back together. Roca’s four-year Intervention Model is a highly successful, data-driven program for helping young men like Derek change their destructive behaviors, develop critical skills, stay out of jail and get jobs. Like every 17 to 24 year old high-risk young man enrolled at Roca, Derek received the constant support and mentoring of a youth worker, was provided a range of life-skills, education and vocational training (he was particularly invested in our culinary arts program), and perhaps most importantly, Derek participated in our transitional employment work program, which paid him a real salary for real work, and helped place him in an external job when he completed his program requirements.
While Derek’s journey from high-risk young man involved in the criminal justice system, to accomplished professional in the culinary field seems unlikely, his success isn’t rare among young people Roca serves. Last year alone, Roca served 659 high-risk, justice system-involved young men from 21 cities throughout eastern and western Massachusetts. Of the young men engaged in the retention phase of Roca’s model in fiscal year 2015 (enrolled for 24 months or more), over 84% retained employment for 180 days or more. 93% had no new arrests and 98% had no new incarcerations.
Unfortunately though, there just aren’t enough organizations like Roca around the country. Instead, most states rely on traditional, punitive measures to address the problem of crime and violence among young people. As a result, the US maintains the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s largest, most expensive criminal justice system. With only 5% of the world’s population, the US houses 25% of the earth’s prisoners. The racial disparities within our system are even more troubling. Based on current trends, it is expected that 1 in 3 black males born today will end up behind bars in their lifetime. For Latinos, it’s 1 in 6. And then there are the disturbing fiscal realities of mass incarceration. In Roca’s home state of Massachusetts, it costs nearly $50,000 a year to incarcerate someone. With a state recidivism rate of nearly 50%, we should all be raising questions about the sustainability of the system.
Yet, there is reason to be hopeful.
At Roca, we know that high-risk young people can and do change their lives when given the right support and skills to succeed, and perhaps most critically—when given a second chance. Just look at Derek Gilmore. He was given a second chance, and was fortunate enough to have Roca there to help him cultivate the kind of opportunities that create sustainable, long-term success. If he hadn’t been given second chance, he’d be sitting in a jail cell right now, wasting his talents, and wasting tax-payer dollars.
Here in Massachusetts, more and more leaders and institutions are recognizing the necessity of investing in programs like Roca, in order to provide high-risk young men like Derek the second chance they so desperately need. Look no further than the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay-for-Success pilot—a seven year project launched by Roca, the Commonwealth of MA, and a host of private investors (including New Profit), aimed at reducing incarceration among over 900 of the state’s most high-risk, justice system-involved young men.
None the less, as a country we still have a tremendous way to go. But if Americans want more Derek Gilmore’s in the world, than we should be divesting from jails and prisons and begin investing in community-based programs like Roca, that have a proven track record of success. In doing so, we can make sure second chances become new beginnings.