Alternative to incarceration program gives teens a second chance

A local non-profit organization in New York City works with kids in the justice system to stop the continuity of behavior that leads them toward a criminal life so early in their lives. Created in 2002, Esperanza was the first city-wide, family-based alternative to an incarceration program that teenagers from years 11 to 19 had access to in family court.

Research has shown that when teenagers and adults are sucked into the criminal justice system, it is more likely that they’ll become repeat offenders. Throughout the five boroughs of New York City and in partnership with the NYC Department of Probation and other youth-serving agencies, Esperanza aims to eliminate recidivism and mitigate the risks of adolescents falling into the stigma of ‘offenders to re-offend.’

“We are here to help you get to the place where you want to be and where you don’t need us anymore. We have an intensive 6-month, in-home, individual family counseling with all master level therapists where we don’t approach counseling as ‘sit on the couch talk about when you were three.’ Basically, where are we, what are the goals that you and your family are working on and how to get there,” said Jennifer Kronenfeld, executive director at Esperanza.

According to a 1999 study, 81 percent of youth released from New York State facilities were rearrested within three years. Esperanza is founded upon the idea that there are better ways to work for young people that are sent to juvenile placement- instead of taking them away. The goal is to help kids understand their mind and goals, work with their whole family and ultimately bring control back to the home.

“We have a strength-based model, where these kids have to ground themselves in what they’re good at–their strengths– and build on those,” said Chantelle Doswell, Youth and Family Field Supervisor at Esperanza in New York.

As an intense, short-based, mandated by the court and time-limited program, Esperanza allows these court-involved youth a way out of jail by providing support services to them and their families. They work through the families schedule and even in their homes. Through therapeutic counseling, families identify their goals and counselors help them begin to get there. The youngest is usually 11 years old while the oldest is turning 19. However, most kids are between 14 and 17 years old.

Stephanie, 30, who requested not to reveal her last name, says she got into some trouble when she was 15 and heard about Esperanza when in the process of facing the criminal justice system. Instead of going to a juvenile detention center, she participated in this alternative to incarceration program.

“The belief that they had in me was part of what helped mold what I wanted in life to come to reality. I honestly, still to this day, keep in contact with my counselors. I don’t know how to explain it — it’s just the relationship and the bond. Feeling comfortable enough to talk to them about having a problem or telling them, ‘This is what I wanna do with my life,’ and them actually listening to me, encouraging me and telling me, ‘Yes, you can do it, this is not the only lifestyle out there,’ helped me a lot,” said Stephanie.

According to Kronenfeld, the first youth were enrolled in 2003 and for the first 10 to 12 years, the only family court was available. In 2012, Esperanza began its expansion to adult court and began to accept kids up to eighteen years of age being prosecuted in Criminal/Supreme Court. Currently, only 20 percent of the cases come from family court while 80 percent come from adult courts and the vast majority are indicted felony cases. Again, instead of going to jail, these teens could be given the option of participating in the program as part of their disposition or sentence.

However, this program cannot always be the salvation for every youth.

“Every situation is different. I’ve always been open to criticism and if you give me advice i’m willing to take it, but there’s kids that have been through worst situations than others. For them, it might be a little bit harder to open up,” said Stephanie.

In a recent 2018 case study, it was proven that in New York City “utilizing restorative justice policies and practices to manage disciplinary matters can trigger a series of events that builds a more inclusive school climate, decreases the level of punitive discipline, lessens the rate at which students experience school push out, and ultimately decreases contact with the juvenile/criminal justice system.” Moreover, programs such as Esperanza that promote and enable restorative justice policies instead of zero-tolerance policies may give these kids a second opportunity at an overall constructive and worthwhile life.

“As angry as you are nobody loves your kid the way you do. Instead of calling you’re P.O (probation officer) our counselors are on call 24/7. In the end, it’s those quick responses that are the agents of change for anything else,” said Kronenfeld.

However, Esperanza has had not only elements of success, but limitations as well. Why not give these kids counseling before they face the criminal justice system? Why only after they’ve been faced with this harsh reality? Many would consider it being too late.

“The question becomes where does government want to put its resources. We all know that we need to improve the school systems and put fewer kids in prison, but the government looks at cost savings and that doesn’t fit on budget. Funding a slot to a program and that sits on a budget. There has to be more political will for making sure there are additional services to earlier interventions and not wait until Esperanza,” said Kronenfeld.

However, according to Doswell, research is advancing more and more and schools and agencies are making sure that earlier interventions on mental health and trauma are at top priority.

“I think it’s never really too late, change is always possible. It’s just a matter of where you are, what your resources are and how the help is being provided,” said Doswell.

In addition, Kronenfeld highlights that in previous times, the system wasn’t ready to give kids another chance. For Esperanza, this was a systemic challenge because kids were getting one shot or opportunity, and if they didn’t participate they would go to placement [jail]. But today, even if kids aren’t a match at Esperanza, judges will work together to give them a chance in another program.

“I don’t think there’s a magic formula. Esperanza is not the cure or the end-all for every kid and family. For some, we’re a great match and for some, we’re not. For example, of 100 kids about four don’t agree to participate. It’s not a failure, but a reality. Not every kid is going to grow up quickly enough to avoid incarceration,” said Kronenfeld.

All in all, self-analysis and self-exploration is the ultimate goal at Esperanza NY.

“At least, if he or she wasn’t ready to do internal changes now, when they’re older they can be open to it thanks to Esperanza. It’s important that they remember having someone who was smart and helpful and respectful and someone that understood it was a privilege to be let in their lives and homes,” said Kronenfeld.

Maria Serrano is a reporter in the Caplin News’s New York City Bureau.