By the Associated Press
BOSTON — Tykeam Jackson’s soft voice and warm smile give little hint of how the 21-year-old spent his youth: in and out of juvenile detention and jails, leading a life in Boston’s mean streets centered on gangs and guns.
“I was always having guns to protect myself. I just kept getting caught,” he said. “I was hanging around the wrong crowd, being in the wrong areas, getting into the wrong activities.”
Over the past year, his outlook has changed. Even as a pending criminal case looms over him, he’s slowly gaining confidence that he can break the cycle that has entangled him — with the help of a unique organization called Roca.
“They’ve gotten me in the right direction,” he said. “Since I’ve been with Roca, my whole life has done a 360.”
Roca is a nonprofit that seeks to steer hundreds of Massachusetts’ highest-risk young men away from a return behind bars, using a distinctive blend of relentlessness and patience. Even the most troublesome participants are exhorted to persist with its multi-year education and job programs; Roca is loath to give up on any of them.
If its unorthodox approach works — and private investors are betting millions of dollars it will — it might show a path forward for other states and cities grasping for ways to bring down stubbornly high rates of re-arrest and re-incarceration.
“It was hard staying out of jail before I got with Roca,” Jackson said. “It’s because I didn’t have a voice. I was just another kid going through the system who everybody just wanted to brush off.”
With more than 2.1 million people held in America’s prisons and jails and the annual bill around $80 billion, according to a Brookings Institution study, there has been bipartisan action on many criminal justice reforms, from scaling back some mandatory sentences to routing more nonviolent offenders to diversion programs.
But there’s been no breakthrough on recidivism.
Within five years, 77 percent of ex-prisoners in a 2014 federal study were arrested again, and more than half went back to prison. The study, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, tracked outcomes for 405,000 inmates released from prisons in 30 states in 2005.
Recidivism rates were highest for inmates who were 24 or younger at release — the age range of the young men that Roca works with in the tough neighborhoods of greater Boston. Nearly all of them have arrest records; the vast majority are high school dropouts involved in street gangs.
They are, in Roca’s own words, young men “not ready, willing or able to participate in any other program.”
“My guys are not going to be Boy Scouts,” said Jason Owens, a Roca assistant director. “It’s Last Chance University for them. It’s either Roca, or jail, or death.”
Roca’s program, with its pledge to investors that they’ll be repaid for its success, is unusual in many ways, and yet it reflects changing attitudes in the U.S. penal system. Politicians and corrections officials are increasingly vocal about stopping the revolving door back to prison, whether for fiscal or humanitarian reasons.
“It used to be that public officials couldn’t even pronounce recidivism,” said Mike Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. “Now you’ll see governors include a whole plan to deal with it in their State of the State address.”