Young adults facing prison get a second chance through first-in-the-nation court program

Young adults facing prison get a second chance through first-in-the-nation court program

The Massachusetts program is designed to address the revolving door of young people going into adult corrections.

By Sarah Betancourt

November 16, 2021

After a high-speed car chase landed Joel in jail awaiting trial on an extensive list of charges — including carrying a loaded firearm without a license — the 22-year-old is working toward a new life.

He was facing a minimum of ten years in prison when his lawyer presented him with an opportunity: plead guilty to the charges and join the Emerging Adult Court of Hope. It will take Joel about two years to complete the laundry list of tasks required through the program, but success means he gets to stay in the free world and rebuild his life.

“I’m doing well, judge,” he told Judge Kevin Maltby during a recent check-in. Maltby leaned over. “Let’s keep up with the no write-ups,” he said. “Is there anything else you want to talk about?” They chat about Joel getting his driver’s license.

It is a scene that would be unexpected to many: a young man with a significant crime taking on the daunting task of redemption. But three months into the EACH program, Joel is doing just that — and succeeding.

EACH is the only post-conviction court program in the country. Young adults are admitted into it with high-level offenses and receive support services not offered elsewhere. The court currently has nine male participants, and the hope is to expand to 25 to 30 men and women. Organizers also want the initiative to serve as a model that could be replicated elsewhere.

GBH is using only participants’ first names or initials due to concerns over their names being public record after expungement.

The EACH Program

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni and nonprofit Roca launched the Emerging Adult Court of Hope, also known as EACH, in March 2020 to address the revolving door of young people going into adult corrections. EACH is housed within Springfield District Court, meeting every Thursday.

The program offers high-risk adults ages 18 to 24 the opportunity to stay out of prison, then have their records expunged and sealed. In return, the participants must plead guilty to the charges against them and work their way through a four-phase program that includes attending therapy, finding supportive housing, staying away from crime and keeping a continuous work schedule.

Participants begin EACH with the transitional employment program, where they work with Mountain View Landscapes, a Roca contractor. They can apply for outside jobs once during phase two of EACH, or after 45 days in the transitional employment program if they show strong work ethic and responsibility. If the young person doesn’t keep their outside job, and shirks their schedule, that’s considered a relapse, and they get sent back to the transitional employment program.

In the third phase, the participant gets a mentor. In the fourth, a case manager helps them form a life plan, which must include an educational or vocational program, or a stable job. Roca can set up educational opportunities at Asnuntuck Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, or Holyoke Community College.

Gulluni makes the final decision on who is offered the opportunity to join. Prosecutors at his office often pull cases of potential candidates who don’t have significant gang ties or who have a limited record. Then they perform background checks, which can even include reaching out to high school teachers, to determine who would be a good fit

“It does involve such an investment in one’s self that they really had to be in a position where it was like, ‘OK, I’m going to go to jail for a while, I’m going to stay here, or I’m going to join this court and do the work,’” said Christine “Chris” Judd, the director of Roca Springfield and Holyoke.

Christine Judd, director of ROCA Springfield and Holyoke
Christine “Chris” Judd, describes the different steps of the EACH Court, and work goals individuals have to meet to progress in the program.

Thursdays in court

J.L. had been late to work once in the last week, and he left early another day. At his court check-in, a probation officer reviewed the absence for the judge. Then Judge Maltby turned to J.L. and asked how he was doing.

“I’m sorry. I’m just a little shaken up,” he said, looking down.

They talked through how J.L. had felt sick and was concerned he had COVID-19. After Maltby explained how those callouts put his job in jeopardy, J.L. said he had a moment of clarity when his supervisor called him the night before.

“She told me when she started this job, she was on the street. And now she owns a house, cars, and stuff like that. And I felt, you know, I needed to hear that for motivation,” he said.

Maltby said that while that was a great story from the supervisor, more importantly, it demonstrates what EACH is trying to help J.L. achieve.

“Frankly, that’s what we’re trying to do with you, too, provide you with that support for trying to teach you different aspects of responsibility — financial responsibility, ensure that you’re on track,” he said. “And part of the stability of this job is the financial stability.”

J.L. was told he needed to have a report saying he was program-compliant within the next week, which he replied he “could definitely” do.

Choosing the program over prison

Marc, 23, struggled living with his family. He ran away to the streets, selling weed to make money. In June 2020, he was a passenger in an unregistered car that state troopers pulled over. He admitted to possessing the loaded, unlicensed gun they found in his backpack, and he went to jail before posting bail.

“I was only doing it because I had a lazy mentality. I didn’t want to get another job,” he said. “I was doing worse stuff to get money. But that doesn’t matter to me. Like, I know I could do whatever I want, but that’s just like … how far is that going to get me?”

On the day GBH interviewed Marc, he pleaded guilty and was accepted into the EACH program. The amount of prison time he’s avoiding? Up to ten years.

“I could do the jail time, but I can also stay free and just work my way up, and stay out, and get this wiped off my record,” he explained.

“I could do the jail time, but I can also stay free and just work my way up, and stay out, and get this wiped off my record.”MARC, PROGRAM PARTICIPANT

C.F., 23, was homeless and sleeping in his car with a loaded gun when police found him. He spent almost 18 months in pretrial detention on seven charges before he was accepted into EACH.

Prosecutors told Maltby that C.F. wanted to join the court to turn his life around. His defense attorney said C.F. had made a “foolish” decision to obtain this firearm to protect himself while living on the streets, even if it was just kept in his car and not brandished or used against anyone.

If C.F. pleaded guilty and accepted the felony, he could have walked out of the courtroom on time served, maybe even without probation. Even while homeless, he kept a job as a contractor installing bowling alley lanes. He had also been a plumber’s apprentice. C.F.’s aunt showed up in court to offer him housing until he could be resettled in a group home.

Asked if he understood the terms of what he was signing up for, and the consequences of not living up to those expectations, C.F. responded: “I think the program is really good for me. It has everything I need — housing, therapy. I think it’s really good. I want to try to do good.”

This is where Maltby gives what sounds like a speech in a movie, saying that the participant is choosing the harder path to take control of their life.

“Sir, I have a felony on your record, which in the long-term only serves to hamper what you want to do with your life. I am extremely impressed by the maturity of the choices you made. And that to me means everything,” he said.

“Always forward. All right. I am happy to accept the recommendation,” said Maltby. He reminds C.F. that violating the terms of probation could cause him to face the maximum suspended sentence of two years with the Department of Correction.

“Very good. I’m going to step off the bench, shake your hand and welcome you to the program,” Maltby said as cuffs were removed from C.F.

C.F. is released
C.F.’s handcuffs are unlocked so he can shake the hand of Judge Kevin Maltby, who welcomed him to the EACH Court on Sept. 23.

Back in his chambers, Maltby called the court an “amazing collaborative effort,” that helps put participants on the right path, “to a job, to an education, and to take what frankly, can be, as you heard in there, someone sleeping in a car and being found with a gun in the car and turning that into getting their lives back on track.”

Second chances

Judd said EACH’s first participant went AWOL after 49 days without a single write-up.

The young man, A.W. had just graduated to phase two. He was doing fine until he was about to enter a group home and was told drug testing might increase.

ROCA workers looked for him, visiting places he was known to go and talking to cousins and friends. After more than a week, Gulluni sent an apprehension team to find him.

Because temporary housing couldn’t be found for him, A.W. spent the weekend in jail, but was released the next week with a GPS bracelet. Judd said he was still part of the program but had “zero curfew,” which means if he’s not at work, he needs to be home or at ROCA. He can stay in EACH if he complies.

“As a court, we understand that we’re going to have to stick with these guys as they have their ups and downs, because they’re dealing with so much trauma in their lives, that come often as children, as teenagers,” Gulluni said.

“So we want to disrupt that cycle. That’s why we’re focused on this 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old group where we want to take them off that track and disrupt the cycle of incarceration.”

Thinking about thinking

During a cognitive behavioral therapy lesson, ROCA Court Coordinator Kiki Thorne asked Marc and Joel to imagine getting an irritating call from their girlfriends while at work. “What’s your first thought?”

Joel wanted to hang up on the imaginary girlfriend, or shut off his phone.

“That’s actually a behavior,” she said. “What’s your actual first thought? Like she’s on your phone, arguing with you.”

Marc says he would just laugh and hang up the phone. “I have time for talking, but not arguing,” he scoffed. He said he cared, but arguing makes everything worse.

Thorne said keeping emotions in check are important because conversations like this could spiral and turn into a domestic situation, unless cool heads prevail.

“Love is a strong emotion. Turning off your phone, hanging out, like not engaging in it is probably going to help lower your temperature. We talk about when you’re at 100 degrees versus 0 degrees — you don’t engage. Think about your values. I value my freedom.”

An emotion and reactionary decision can lead to regret, she said.

At the end of the lesson, Joel joked, “Maybe get her some food. That would be one of my fixes.” Marc and Thorne laughed.

It may sound like a jovial exchange, but the intention is serious: “rerouting the brain,” as Judd calls it.

Research shows a person’s neurological growth doesn’t fully end until their mid-twenties. With that in mind, ROCA worked with a Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist to develop a ten-lesson therapy program for high-risk young adults.

Judd said its essential for teaching young people about how their brains make decisions and react to traumatic events. She trains participants to not only acknowledge a powerful feeling, but to “sit in that feeling” for 30 seconds to allow any physical response to go away. That’s to avoid keeping participants from shutting down, or reverting to violent behavior if they’re triggered.

“So that’s where our CBT is huge,” said Judd.

Joel and tattoos
Joel, a participant of EACH, explains each of his tattoos and their meaning to a GBH reporter, and recounts the death of his own father at the age of 18.

Joel is cognizant of the way he thinks, the things he’s done, and what led him there. In an interview, he showed off a series of tattoos. A flower. His mother’s name in Arabic, just because he loves the script. A cross and the devil sign. A Pac Man chasing a Playboy Bunny. As he traces them, he talks about his father, gunned down at the age of 18, and how he was named for him. He spent much of his childhood in Puerto Rico before coming to Springfield as a teenager.

“The way I grew up, I see all this shit. Killings, all of that. They raised me good, with respect, but when I grew up, I was going my own way,” he said.

Despite that history, Gulluni thought he could be a candidate.

“With Joel, we had a good sense of him,” Gulluni said. “I just was struck by what he said at the time. He was like, ‘I made a mistake. And I see this as an opportunity to turn my life around. And I just want to work. I just want to do better.’”

Joel said he has some dreams. He wants to run his own business where people can get their grass mowed, trash removed, cars detailed and homes painted. “An all-in-one shop,” he said, grinning.


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