Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
AFJ’s mission, which is to ensure that young people have access to free court advocacy services, is as crucial now as it was when we were founded over 40 years ago. We know that Black and Brown youth across New York City continue to experience unjust rates of arrest: 93% of youth arrested in 2020 were African American or Hispanic. This is a dangerous situation for many who end up awaiting trial in places like Rikers Island, where 18 people died in 2022. AFJ provides an alternative, offering young people services and support instead of jail time.
While the criminal justice system seeks retribution for past misdeeds and many “corrective” youth programs focus exclusively on individuals’ deficits, AFJ builds on Participants’ strengths and helps them realize their potential through growth-inspired programs. We aim to prevent youth from engaging in future crime, supporting them to lead successful lives. Validated by neurological and psychological studies showing that our brains do not fully mature until age 25, AFJ’s approach has always been non-punitive. We recognize that because their decision making capability is not fully developed, young adults have a high capacity for rehabilitation and positive change. Our programs provide individualized needs-based social services to address the drivers of criminal behavior, complemented by growth-oriented programming to prepare Participants for the future.
We have remained a community-based program with a staff of administrators and court advocates, who not only look like our Participants, but who come from and live in the neighborhoods we serve. By having a diverse team of court advocates who are either successful Program Graduates or are from the neighborhoods we serve and know the circumstances in which our Participants are raised, AFJ is better able to address both the individual and systemic issues that led our Participants into their circumstances and support them with second chances.
Our results confirm this approach: It costs New York taxpayers $900,000 a year to incarcerate one young person, whereas it only costs AFJ $6,300 to put one young person through a full year of our wraparound services which lead to employment, academic success, and long-term stability. On average, only 6% of our court-involved Participants are reconvicted within three years of enrollment at AFJ and only 13% are reconvicted within six years of enrollment.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
For organizations like Avenues for Justice, we recognize that heroes come from our very own communities. They are everyday people who commit to giving back to ensure that their communities continue to thrive and flourish. In December 2022, AFJ joined two other New York City nonprofit organizations to celebrate our heroes at the Robin Hood Heroes Breakfast. AFJ’s own hero Elsie Flores was among the three honorees.
Elsie grew up in the Lower East Side with her mother who struggled with her mental health and addiction. By the age of 16, Elsie had been arrested multiple times and was facing one to three years for each arrest related to drug sales. Elsie was looking at a total of nine years of incarceration during a time when young people could be tried and sentenced as adults. On top of the possibility of state time, Elsie learned she was pregnant.
Thankfully, Elsie was referred to Avenues for Justice’s court advocacy program. “My Probation Officer John made a deal with [AFJ] that if I did their program for a year, I would earn Youthful Offender status, have my record sealed, and get five years of probation.”
While at AFJ, Elsie received legal support, supportive services, mentorship, and guidance. Through her own hard work and with the support of her Court Advocate, Nelson, Elsie was able to navigate the court system without having to serve time. Additionally, Elsie was able to successfully provide for her child, intern at AFJ after successfully graduating from the program and earn a Bachelor’s Degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2020.
Today, Elsie has worked as a Court Advocate at AFJ for 12 years, providing guidance to young people seeking second chances. Elsie proudly says, “Today, I’m a court advocate for 50 kids ages 13–24, kids just like me. Kids who are motherless, fatherless, and financially burdened. Kids who have been abused. Kids who find security with gangs, and stability with the cash they can make on the street. They gotta learn that’s not the crowd for them. Sexual abuse, they gotta learn, it’s not their fault. At Avenues for Justice, we are going from negative to positive. That’s our mission, my mission.”
Elsie exemplifies the importance of second chances and the need for our work is as important now as ever before. In fact, AFJ was recognized in 1994 when our Co-founder and Executive Director, Angel Rodriguez, was named a Robin Hood Hero. Unfortunately, just like in 1994, the communities AFJ serves continue to deal with inadequate access to resources, excessive policing and disproportionately high arrest rates among African American and Hispanic youth.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Our Participants face the challenges that studies show are sources of youth crime — poverty, family instability, low educational outcomes, trauma, and drugs. Many Participants come to us with gaps in their education and lack job skills which AFJ works to fill. Our physical presence in the community raises our profile and helps us build relationships with community organizations and leaders who refer to us and provide support for our Participants.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!