By Terry Green II
From Ohio, to New York, to Kentucky, states are recognizing an extensive problem in terms of lost money and talent when young adults come out of incarceration without a pathway back to a productive life. Locally and nationally, there is a deep need for evidence-based programs that reduce recidivism and enable ex-offenders to achieve more education, job skills, and, ultimately, self-sufficiency. This is why I shared my own story as a guest speaker at the National Association of Attorneys General 2017 Winter Meeting in early March in Washington, DC.
In many states, the solution starts with a local program.
For decades, YouthBuild programs in 45 states have been engaging court-involved young people in ways that rebuild both lives and communities. I was one of those lost kids that needed direction to get me reengaged in school and work training.
Eight years ago, I was incarcerated for drug-possession. When I walked inside of that prison, I knew I wanted to do something more with my life. I got involved with Ohio State’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings college students and incarcerated individuals together to create avenues for education and civic engagement. After serving four years in prison, I wanted to continue my progress and I found my way to YouthBuild Franklin County, which follows the YouthBuild model for low-income youth who never finished high school.
I was accepted into YouthBuild Franklin County’s SMART (Start Making a Real Transformation) Initiative, which builds on YouthBuild’s model that involves completing secondary education in individualized academic classes; working in construction-training teams building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people in our communities; and engaging in leadership development, community service, and personal counseling. The SMART Initiative went a step further, focusing on ex-offenders like me through enhanced approaches to recidivism reduction and re-entry — and it worked.
National numbers show previously convicted YouthBuild students have a reconviction rate of 11 percent, compared to the 21–33 percent one-year reconviction rate nationwide in similar populations.
My time at YouthBuild taught me that I had value to share with my community; I could be a leader for my peers and I could share my story to prevent others from going down the wrong path.
After graduating from the SMART Initiative in 2013, I worked full-time while pursuing business management courses, speaking at criminal justice classes at Ohio State University and at sessions at the Southeastern Correctional Institution — where I had been incarcerated. I also served on a national advisory board on court-involved youth.
For the last four years, I’ve worked as a proud ambassador for the one third of YouthBuild students who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
Attorneys General are on the front lines of criminal justice — and they have the opportunity to help reduce recidivism in every state by lifting up programs like YouthBuild and the SMART Initiative.
A study from 2014 showed that the recidivism rate in Ohio within three years of release was 27.1 percent, much lower than the national average of 40 percent. Our state is already making progress on this front, and now is the time to invest in the programs we know are effective, like YouthBuild, to improve upon our progress.
Throughout the United States, there are an estimated 3 million low-income, out-of-school, out-of-work young adults ages 16 to 24. These young men and women — often called opportunity youth — are also at high risk of involvement with the criminal justice system, leading to incarceration. Higher incarceration rates mean increased spending of taxpayer money on direct costs — like jail and prison costs — and can lead to longer-term social and economic costs like barriers to employment.
Projections of the cost-benefit return on investment from reducing recidivism are — at best — approximations. But my story of transformation is not unique — I know hundreds of YouthBuild graduates just like me among the 140,000 who have gone through the program in the past 25 years. Our stories show the power of scaling up and replicating models like YouthBuild that consistently prove effective at reducing ex-offenders being re-incarcerated.
At a time when public officials across the political spectrum and law enforcement professionals are increasingly looking for ways to reduce mass incarceration, save taxpayers money, and keep crimes rates low, local programs are proven, replicable and cost-effective ways to achieve those goals.
Terry Green II is a Columbus resident and YouthBuild graduate, consultant, speaker, mentor, and CEO/Founder of Think Make Live, a motivational organization.