Alternatives to the Court Experience Program Creates Second Chances for Youth Offenders

Mr. Simon coaches Bernard at the Nomis gym in NE, DC

In late December, when most eleven-year-olds are preoccupied with Christmas or Hanukkah presents, a young 5th grader found himself charged with assault with a deadly weapon after an encounter in his school bathroom. However, rather than being prosecuted and sent to a juvenile detention center, Bernard* was diverted into a program run by DHS called Alternatives to the Court Experience (ACE). Today, six months after his close encounter with the juvenile justice system, Bernard has become engaged at school, at home, and with an after school boxing program, called the NOMIS Youth Network.

This week, we are highlighting Bernard’s journey through the ACE program. We are excited to share his story, and the story of ACE: A program that has diverted a total of 1190 youth in the District of Columbia over the last two years, and that has an overall post-program success rate of 91%.

*Bernard is an alias to protect the identity of the youth.

Diversion as a catalyst to change

We met up with Bernard, a wiry eleven year old, at the NOMIS Youth Network on Benning Road. NOMIS is an after school boxing program run by Robert Simon, a man devoted to the Benning Road community, who has made it his life’s work to teach young men and women the fundamentals of boxing — all towards the goal of preventing young people from entering the system.

Bernard’s case manager connected him with NOMIS a few weeks after he was diverted into ACE. Withdrawn at first, Bernard slowly took to the sport, and to Mr. Simon. Bernard now goes to NOMIS after school every day, to meet up with his friends and to learn from Mr. Simon, who acts not only as a trainer but also as a mentor.

Mission Statement painted inside Nomis gym

The Numbers

Since Bernard has been in the ACE program, he has put in over 500 hours at the NOMIS gym. He also earned grades that placed him on the honor roll last quarter. His case manager reports that he’s engaging better in his personal relationships and is managing his behavioral health issues with the help of a therapist. He likes to box with his twin brother, and he has found a sport into which he can channel his energy.

This is not a unique outcome. The ACE program uses a tool called the Child and Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale (CAFAS) to determine the types and degree of functioning across critical life subscales, to both identify the interventions that are required for a child, and to track improvement over time. A significant majority of youth see improvements in the CAFAS score over the course of their engagement with the ACE program.

Our Vision for Youth

ACE case managers have worked with thousands of youth since the opening of the program in June 2014. The outcomes of the youth that pass through the program have been tremendous, thanks in part to programs like NOMIS. NOMIS is but one of many invaluable community support systems that help high risk youth avoid juvenile delinquency, and a criminal record.

Bernard’s story is one that reflects an important lesson. In the context of providing youth with the supports that they need to divert them from potential incarceration, it is essential to provide both behavioral health and social supports, to address the risk factors that affect many young people. More broadly, it is possible to address the challenges that at risk youth face. With the right resources and the right interventions, communities like ours can build resiliency to catalyze change — one young person at a time. See more about ACE here.

Jessica Li, Staff Assistant, DHS