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Effective Compassion: Pipelines to prison - S3.E2

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WORLD Radio - Effective Compassion: Pipelines to prison - S3.E2

Ministries that change the direction of young people headed down the wrong path


Brian Morales (left) learns woodworking at a Christian-owned carpentry shop as part of his mentoring through Straight Ahead Ministries. Photo by Sarah Schweinsberg

The criminal justice system isn’t just for adults.

MORALES: It started like the fifth grade pretty much.

Brian Morales’s run-ins with the law started in elementary school.

MORALES: I picked up my first case for a school disturbance. I was just running around the halls just acting acting a fool... and then I picked up another case short after that and that one had an assault and battery on the older lady … And at that point, they just found me to be a menace... And then I got put I got locked away. I got locked up.

Locked up in a juvenile detention center for a month. And then sent to a juvenile residential home.

After that, Brian Morales got caught up in a regular cycle of trouble with the law. Between his 15th and 18th birthdays, he got arrested every three months … for things like pulling the fire alarm at school or disobeying his release requirements.

MORALES: Because of my ankle monitor, I would let it die. I didn't follow the restriction they gave me. Like they gave me a curfew … And I never came home on time. So and it only takes three violations to get pulled back in. They would give me like 10.

He kept getting locked up for the same things … but his behavior never changed. Nobody seemed to know how to help him.

MORALES: Once you initiate yourself with the wrong group of people peer pressure all that is real...You just want to have fun. Like once you've got a taste you just want more and more until you look up and you're in a 10 foot hole that you can't get out of.

From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.

I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

UNDERWRITER SPOT: Support Effective Compassion today at wng.org/donate. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, the most dangerous nation for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.

On any given day, about 50,000 young people sit in criminal justice facilities across the United States. That includes group homes, detention centers, residential treatment programs, or, in some cases, adult prisons.

The idea behind locking kids up in places like this is to get them help. To teach them how to live a life free from violence, stealing, or drugs. To straighten them out.

But studies consistently show for kids like Brian Morales the opposite is more likely to happen.

One found that youth who spend time in juvenile detention are 33 percent more likely to commit a felony later in life … and 11 percent more likely to commit a misdemeanor. A stay in detention can also make health and emotional problems worse.

You might think of the youth criminal justice system as a pipeline to prison.

JoLynn DiGrazia is the founder and director of Westside Ministries.

DIGRAZIA: So these are like, this is like the cheapest kind of area to live.

She’s driving through her neighborhood: the Westside of Turlock, California.

And … she hits a pothole.

DIGRAZIA: Can you see that? We need better roads.

Turlock is a city of 75,000 in California’s Central Valley. It’s famous for its almond groves. The fertile soil also produces apricots, peaches, and walnuts. And for its large turkey plant.

Nearly 40 percent of the city's residents are Hispanic … and work in the groves, orchards, fields, and factories.

DIGRAZIA: So this is usually a sweet potato field. So that's one of the, you know, places that field workers would work, you know, really labor intensive stuff.

Many Hispanic families live here on the Westside. The neighborhood is poor. Affordable housing is scarce so homelessness is common.

DIGRAZIA: I just want you guys to kind of see what I'm talking about as far as housing. These apartments are $1,100 to $1200 a month. And they are horrific.

Parents work long hours to make ends meet.

And that often means children are unsupervised… especially during the summers and after school hours. That makes it easier for them to get mixed up in gang or drug activity. And that leads to higher crime rates.

Westside Ministries is trying to disrupt this pipeline to prison by offering young people an alternative. That alternative comes through after-school programs, mentorship, and discipleship.

While she’s driving around, JoLynn DiGrazia picks up a little girl who comes to the Westside Center. She and her mom have been homeless most of her life. Her mom has rheumatoid arthritis, so finding a job she’s able to do has been tough.

Her dad just got out of jail. The girl is only 11, but she already realizes she’ll soon be making important life choices of her own. Westside is helping to guide her.

SALLY: I like that they teach kids like, like all around town, they teach kids, like you don't have to be in gangs and stuff. And they teach about God. They have a playground in the back where kids can play and stuff.

Back at the Westside Center, DiGrazia says the ministry’s after-school hours are intentional.

DIGRAZIA: Starting about October 1. Usually, parents are working seven days a week... because it's turkey season... It's long shifts, very hard... So that's why in especially in the most recent years, we've really expanded that three to seven o'clock, which is when most juvenile crime happens. Trying to make sure that you know, kids like her and her and him have an opportunity to have a choice.

Statistics show poverty often correlates with higher crime rates and more run-ins with the law. But why is that?

Michael Hallet is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida. You met him in Episode 1. He’s written numerous books and articles on crime, prison, and society.

He says the connection between poverty and crime is complicated. But it has a lot to do with social and economic capital or opportunities.

HALLET: I think that the short answer to that question is that young people who come, you know, profoundly and disproportionately from urban environment...who are constantly pardon me beaten over the head, to just say no, right?...Well, what do they have to say yes to?...And why is crime low where crime is low? Well, from a from a pro social corrections perspective, the answer to that question is, crime is low in low crime neighborhoods, because people have a lot to say yes to. Okay, and where we're failing in criminal justice, frankly, is not in meeting and out and failing to mete out enough punishment...Where we fail, is in delivering options for young people to which they can say yes.

Young people who live in poor communities have fewer options for a variety of reasons. Their neighborhoods have higher rates of unemployment and lower-paying jobs. They are more likely to live in a single-parent household that struggles to make ends meet and is missing an important parental figure. And poor communities have less school and educational choices.

The feeling and often reality of a lack of opportunity affects how young people behave.

HALLET: What we've seen is that when people have options... they become more heavily invested in putting points on the board, right? If a student gets an A on the midterm, it's very likely they're going to get an A on the final because they don't want to blow their A, right? They've got an investment, they want to keep it.

Scott Larson has another way of putting it. He’s been working with incarcerated youth for 35 years. He says impoverished and minority neighborhoods … often have fewer safety nets. Sometimes, for the reasons we already mentioned, the biggest and the most important one missing is family.

LARSON: Even if you have ADHD, and bipolar and every possible challenge, if you have a strong family advocating for you, you can often get services. But if your family is overstressed, that safety net, is removed, and then the school system is the next one...but if you learn in ways that the school doesn't primarily teach in … now that's two safety nets that you've missed. Then it tends to be the community, a church, a youth group...maybe, you know, it's a boxing or soccer or sports or you find something where you feel like you're worthwhile you belong... If you don't get caught in those… The next place you're in the juvenile justice system.

Unless … Christians step in with another safety net. One that’s designed to meet these kids’ specific needs. Help that is challenging, personal, and spiritual. Those are the hallmarks of effective compassion.

JoLynn DiGrazia started Westside Ministries almost 40 years ago out of her classroom because she watched kids fall through safety nets everyday.

Back then, she was a young teacher at an elementary school in Turlock’s Westside.

Gang activity was everywhere. Many of her students were hungry. Some even came to school without shoes. And they often showed up late or not at all.

She got really frustrated. Why weren’t parents making school a priority? Why weren’t they supporting their children? So, DiGrazia went to visit one of her student’s moms.

DIGRAZIA: Her mom was just coming home from working at a bar...It's like a loose prostitution-type situation. And she basically told me..."Don't judge me." And that kind of hit me… She had her children taken away from her shortly thereafter... because she got arrested for selling drugs.

DiGrazia saw that these patterns were bound to repeat themselves in the lives of children. Parents desperately needed support to raise their families. A place where their children could play and laugh and work and eat and study.

DIGRAZIA: If you're impoverished, you have one or more parents that have been involved with the judicial system. It's hard to make your way.

But DiGrazia saw that children needed more than that. Much more. They need the Gospel. So eventually, she and her husband opened the Westside Ministries center.

Here, nurturing kids starts really young. In preschool.

SOUND: (Kids Singing) Waves of mercy, waves of grace. Everywhere I look I see your face.

Three-year-olds all the way through late elementary-aged children sit on a tile floor, waving their hands in the air. A canopy protects them from California’s hot Central Valley sun.

SOUND: (Kids Singing) I said whose side are you leaning on? Leaning on the Lord’s side.

After song time, the kids gather around lunch tables with pencils and crayons. Teachers pass out alphabet worksheets and have children recite the day’s memory verse. DiGrazia says spending time in Scripture is critical.

DIGRAZIA: We just try to stay constant on getting the Word in the kids' hearts and minds.

Leaders try to get kids talking. They want to know what’s going on at school and at home. They ask students for prayer requests.

STUDENT: I want to pray for my grandmother because she is kind of struggling with her health right now and stuff.

STUDENT: I put school and family because there's a lot of drama going on.

Kids also just play.

SOUND: AMBI OF BASKETBALLS BOUNCING

A big grassy lawn for soccer. A library. Computers for homework. And a dance school. This evening an instructor is teaching a hip hop class.

SOUND: Hip Hop Music

DiGrazia says part of helping kids get excited for their futures despite tough circumstances... is filling their lives with good things. She and other staff get to know each kid. Then they help them get involved in extracurriculars…like dancing, theater, and music. Or kids can get their hands dirty.

DIGRAZIA: There's tomatoes and peppers, and eggplant up there. And there's cucumbers.

Out in a large garden along the side of the center, there’s plants and some friendly poultry run around.

DIGRAZIA: They love the chickens. This is something new. We've only had these for a year…We show pigs, we'll show you the pig facility. It's off campus. One of our kids has a goat.

But being involved isn’t free. On Saturdays, students come and help clean bathrooms, vacuum, and do maintenance in the yard.

Another key factor in keeping kids out of trouble is also keeping them in school. DiGrazia says if joining a gang, doing drugs or drinking look easier than school… kids will drop out.

DIGRAZIA: So if it's easier to be involved with those three things… you're going to have the scale tip.

So Westside staff spend a lot of time tutoring kids.

VOLUN TEER: It's Wednesday. So what does that mean we have? What’s Wednesday?

KIDS: Homework Club!

After school, staff help Westside kids with their homework. They even check in with kids’ teachers to ask how they can help struggling students.

One of the older students here today is Erica. She’s been coming here after school since she was little. She says Westside has helped her stay in school.

ERICA: They make you focus about school... and help you with all your homework and stuff…

Now, she knows what she wants to do after graduation.

ERICA: I want to be a CNA and help like the old people.

Over the years, Jolynn DiGrazia has seen a lot of Westside kids like Erica succeed.

DIGRAZIA: I think, very gratifying was the the Christmas when...I opened up this card, and it said, the White House, and it was a personal Christmas card from Obama, President Obama, like signed, I still have it in here. And I realized that one of my kids was serving in the White House as an Undersecretary.

But DiGrazia’s work also comes with plenty of heartbreak. She’s seen many kids get tangled up with crime. Right now, one of the Westside boys is in a juvenile detention center. He’s 14-years-old.

DIGRAZIA: I think it might be a couple of attempted murder gun charges… He's probably going to go away for a long time.

When a child commits a serious violent crime, sometimes the only option is a detention center or adult prison. That’s why Westside Ministries tries to head things off before they ever reach that point in a child’s life. But it doesn’t always work.

DIGRAZIA: We've buried a lot of kids from gang violence, from drug addiction. Some of their children have died from gang violence and drug addiction…

Still, DiGrazia and Westside Ministries continue to fight for each child, one at a time.

DIGRAZIA: Life isn't easy but the key thing that we try to do is just stay here and not give up, and understand that what we can do is be Christ to them, to live John 1 to them, to live incarnationally, to not give up.

But sometimes kids…especially teenagers need more intense intervention. Sometimes they need a completely new environment and full-time love and care.

Two hours north of Turlock the landscape changes. The flat plains of the Central Valley give way to green, forested hills. Nestled on one of these hills is the Christian Encounter Ranch. Troubled teens from across the country can come to live at the ranch for at least a year.

Today, the teens and ranch are getting ready for lunch.Before they dig in, one of the teens offers a blessing.

STAFF: Go for it, Kayla.

KAYLA: Dear heavenly Father, I just want to thank you for everyone in this circle. Thank you for the day you've given us.

SOUND: EATING LUNCH

Then, over bowls of potato soup, the teens and ranch staff talk about comics, camping trips, favorite foods, and to-do lists.

The seemingly small act of eating a meal all together can be a big deal for these teenagers. Many come from tough, chaotic backgrounds. They are struggling with anger, mental health issues or substance abuse.

If these teens haven’t already had a run-in with the law, many of them are headed in that direction … unless something changes.

Staffer Sharon Palmer says Christian Encounter tries to help teens heal by creating a family environment. Doing activities like mealtimes. Movie nights. Trips to the lake or camping.

PALMER: The overall goal would be like doing fun things that healthy families do together.

While they’re here, the teens also attend school, work around the property, and get mentored by staff.

TIMOTHY: A lot of it started when I was younger.

Seventeen-year-old Timothy arrived two months ago. He’s from Los Angeles. He wears a black stocking hat and a black T-Shirt. Pen drawings cover his arms.

Before he came here, Timothy was suicidal. His parents admitted him to a hospital psych-ward.

TIMOTHY: Stuff going on with between my mom and dad… that caused a lot of pain.

Timothy says at Christian Encounter he’s wrestling with his past, and he’s wrestling with God.

TIMOTHY: There's just anger towards God, and for some things that's been happening and has happened.

After just a short time here, Timothy says he’s feeling better. Working and being outside, laughing and being away from his phone and social media is a breath of fresh air.

TIMOTHY: I'm a lot less anxious… I'm not as depressed being here as I was at home.... You're around each other all the time… And you know, at some point they'll see your lowest lows and like your really happy times… And they want to get to know you. And because they want to get to know you're like, these people are pretty, pretty cool.

A big part of a teens time at Christian Encounter is also spent in counseling.

Kevin Phillips is the head of counseling at the ministry. He says underneath most of the teens’ external behaviors … are emotional factors.

PHILLIPS: When you get down to it with the kids, it's never a behavioral issue. It's always an emotional issue.

Phillips says those emotional issues are often caused by low-self-esteem. But many times it’s even deeper than that. Many teens acting out… running into the law… have some sort of trauma. Physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Violence. Neglect.

PHILLIPS: In the adjudicated population, that's it's like 90 percent or higher. It's close to 100 percent.

When a child suffers a trauma that doesn’t get dealt with it festers… and then grows. It teaches them how to respond to everyday life. Often that’s with anger.

PHILLIPS: Trauma has a very significant impact on brain development... I'll give an example. So let's say you have a kid who experiences or witnesses a lot of domestic violence in the home at a young age, you know, let's say from a toddler. This kid is probably really likely to have a exaggerated startle response… These kids will jump out of their skin when there's a noise. They have hyper vigilance. They're always waiting for something to go wrong. They're always internally and emotionally, on this heightened sense of alert, watching for what's happening around them. They don't trust anybody, they don't feel safe anywhere. That's all a result of trauma. And it's not just a matter of it's this emotional state they're in, it's a matter of their brain is now wired to be that way. So we have to literally work with them to the point where they change their thinking and behavior enough that their brain will rewire in a way that makes things closer to normal.

Kevin Phillips says traditionally the juvenile justice system hasn’t recognized the significance of trauma. So it’s been punishing children and teens for behaviors without getting to the root causes. That’s why recidivism rates are high.

That’s true for the adult justice system as well.

PHILLIPS: If you go to prison, you're gonna find almost everybody there had a traumatic youth.

But that’s changing. Especially in the juvenile justice system. More and more judges and agencies are getting training in what’s called trauma informed care.

PHILLIPS: The judicial system. Department of Health Care Services, everyone is making that shift. And they're all pushing it downline to the agencies of the other end who are actually treating the kids.

Christians can be especially effective helping troubled teens process their hurts and relearn how to live. Kevin Phillips says the gospel is trauma informed care.

PHILLIPS: Isn't that what Christianity is? Right, helping the hurt and lost in the broken? It's what we do.

Jackie Turner came to Christian Encounter when she was 19. Before that she’d spent a lot of her life in foster care. When she was with family, they were abusive.

TURNER: At 19, I got in trouble with the law...there was people that I was hanging out with that weren't the best.

A friend recommended Turner try Christian Encounter. She stayed for the next two years. During that time, the staff loved her. She got to process everything that had happened to her. She got to learn how to heal. She met Jesus.

TURNER: My whole life before here, was all destruction, chaos, pain, abuse, trauma and all types of stuff. I got here in rage, I left here with full hope.

Turner went on to get a college degree with honors. Today, she works in non-profits helping homeless women and children.

Jackie Turner says if she hadn’t gotten a chance to deal with her trauma… she isn’t sure where she would have ended up.

TURNER: They are people that went through trauma that no one got you to have an experience, not everyone gets a CEM. So the missing factor is you have all these people screaming about the injustice, you have no one answering people.

Turner says whether a young person is in a confined facility or in an outside program… dealing with their hurts, their underlying issues, is essential to their rehabilitation.

TURNER: They have to dig out those wounds, they have to confront each other even though it's hard. And then what do they do? They rise up and out because now they are knowledgeable about what the issue actually is. Our wrestling isn't against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces. And if we're not willing to start dealing with that, we're going to keep attacking the wrong enemies. We're going to keep attacking people, keep throwing them in jails.

But what about teens who’ve already broken the law in a serious way or maybe repeatedly? Is it possible to change their trajectory and get them out of the criminal justice system spiral?

Across the country, on the opposite coast, that’s something Scott Larson has been trying to do. You met him earlier in the episode. Larson and his wife started Straight Ahead Ministries almost 35 years ago.

LARSON: I left my job as a stockbroker, went to seminary and felt called to work with leadership youth.

Larson calls the youth in juvie: “leadership youth” because he sees them as leaders in their communities… albeit leading people to do negative things. Larson and his wife got permission to go into Massachusetts juvenile facilities and begin holding Bible studies.

LARSON: If they can experience a real encounter with Christ, and a vision of something bigger than just, you know, getting over another gang. Internally, they have all the gifts that God has for any leader.

But after a few years, Larson realized a lot of these young people faced huge challenges once they left the juvenile system. Either they ended up in adult prison, or they got tangled up in gangs again.

So Larson and his wife began to let some of the teenage boys getting out of juvie come live with them. But that wasn’t a sustainable or a scalable model.

That’s when Larson started discipleship and mentorship chapters around Massachusetts… where full-time and part-time staff walk through life with young men and women fresh out of the juvenile system. They help them find housing, and offer educational opportunities, job training, and discipleship. They give them a new community, and a family.

LARSON: And so, you know, in three cities, we have about 450 youth involved in that in the reentry centers, and we could serve a lot more young people that way.

SOUND: CAR LOCKING, GUYS TALKING

Today, five of the guys Straight Ahead is mentoring jump out of a big black van. They’re in the sea-side town of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

They’re going to spend the day at a Christian-owned carpentry shop where Straight Ahead pays their hourly wages. A couple full-time staffers oversee them while they work. That mostly means talking and joking with them.

SOUND: Laughing, loud music.

The group is energetic. The guys like playing loud music while they work. They laugh and tease each other.

SOUND: MUSIC, LAUGHING

Today, they’re all working on building a reception desk for a local business. They learn how to carefully measure. How to use an electric saw to cut perfectly straight lines. How to glue wood together and how to sand it until it feels like a kitchen countertop.

SOUND: SANDER, SAW

One of the guys is Josue Capellan. He’s 23. He spent a year in county jail for illegal weapons possession. He says he knew he was going to end up right back in prison if something didn’t change.

CAPELLAN: I feel like I gotta be occupied at all times of the day is not gonna go back to my always in trouble. It's not good for you.

A friend told him about Straight Ahead. He likes working with his hands, so coming here three days a week is something he looks forward to. He points down to the picnic table we’re sitting on.

CAPELLAN: We'll make like cutting boards, skateboards… We made these benches right here, as a matter of fact. Picnic benches. Made these. Like 14 of these.

Josue Capellan says the relationships he’s formed with the staff and other guys have helped him find direction and take responsibility for his actions.

CAPELLAN: The biggest change I've seen in myself is not being so much a part of the street being more part of like, a better environment for myself. That's what I think is the biggest change because I was I was really big into the streets.

But his old life always pulls at him. Partly because he’s loyal… maybe to a fault. He doesn’t want to part ways with old friends.

CAPELLAN: No, they're not good influences but you know, I'm not gonna change my friends for nobody, you know.

Jason Ludwig is a full-time staffer with Straight Ahead. He says countering all those influences takes a lot of time. Day-in and day-out.

LUDWIG: We found that usually it takes about five to seven years to really make a transition out of the gangs you know. Some guys get it quicker you…We always tell these kids look, the door’s never closed here. We're always going to be here.

Ludwig gets the challenges these guys are up against. He was in and out of juvie and then jail for years until Christ saved him.

LUDWIG: The first time I got locked up when I was 13-years-old.

He says the route to a solid path often isn’t straight despite the ministry’s name. A lot of guys and girls come in and out of contact with Straight Ahead.

LUDWIG: There'll be times where they backslide and fall back or maybe get locked up or whatever.

But Straight Ahead youth are two-thirds less likely to get rearrested. Ludwig says that’s great… but the point isn’t just keeping young people out of jail or addressing behavior. It's a true, lasting heart transformation.

LUDWIG: Honestly, when they do get locked up I don't really get too frustrated because at least they’re still alive because there's so many kids that they don't make it... They get murdered, they overdose and so and that's why it's so important…And then when when they do make it I mean we are changing generations...You know, it's gonna affect their immediate family, any future children that they have, the community they live in. And so it has such a huge ripple effect.

One of those lives whose trajectory is being affected is Brian Morales. You met him at the beginning of the episode. After he aged out of juvie, he says he spent a year bumming around.

MORALES: I had no motivation to do anything for myself. I had no job making no money. I was a bum. I did nothing with my days but smoke.

He was desperate for change, so he went back to his former juvenile officers and asked for help. They told him about Straight Ahead. He spends two days a week with the ministry here at the wood shop. Straight Ahead helped him find work at a warehouse for another three days a week.

Now, he’s got his driver's license, dreams of being a mechanic, and he’s supporting his 3-year-old son.

MORALES: They're helping me get into a position where, I where I can be an effect like an impactful like a good father.

Jason Ludwig says there’s an overwhelming number of Brian Moraleses out there. The needs are great and workers are few. Pipelines to a life in and out of prison need some strong dams to stop the flow. Who will stand in the way?

LUDWIG: I'll talk specifically on the church. I feel like they, they want to be involved. They just don't know how to. I think there's a lot of fear there. I think it's easy for the church to push it aside to somebody else to do rather than than do it…When you start to know these people, you just say, Oh, you put the human aspect back then it's just like, Oh, these people are just like me, actually.

Many of the youth who end up breaking the law have dabbled with illegal drugs. Some of them eventually become addicts. And once they get to that point, prison usually isn’t far behind. Four decades ago, criminal justice reformers realized if they wanted to keep drug offenders out of jails, they had to break addiction’s hold.

Next week, we’ll take a trip to drug court, where addicts get a chance to avoid prison and a second chance at life. 

I’m Sarah Schwiensberg.

Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. Leigh Jones is the producer. Paul Butler is our technical producer, and Rich Roszel is our engineer.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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