May 28, 2024

COLLAGE:Dealing in Second Chances: A Legacy Almost 50 Years in the Making

Photo by Olivier Lafontant

At the Manhattan Criminal Court, 15 floors up, Angel Rodriguez’s office overlooks Wall Street’s throng of skyscrapers. Awards, photos, and letters blanket the small room. One note says, “Angel, this is for all you do helping these young people.” A plexiglass divider rests on his desk, and a 24-year-old man named José sits opposite Rodriguez behind the glass.

In 2020, José was hanging out in front of a bodega with a few friends when they noticed a man trying to steal a bike from a 13-year-old girl. They intervened, preventing the bike theft, and the man said he would be coming back. The man returned later, and a fight broke out. José had grabbed a bat from the bodega in order to protect himself, and the man was injured in the confrontation. José was charged with assault at the age of 19.

While he was being held in jail under $50,000 bail, the pandemic hit, and José spent two years at Rikers Island –– spending his 21st birthday behind bars. Now released from jail, José’s case is still being worked out four years later, in order to determine whether he will be sentenced to additional prison time.  

He has come to Rodriguez for help. After a short discussion, Rodriguez tells the young man he will write him a check for $800–– enough to help him pay his family’s monthly rent–– and that he will join José in court once again on Friday.  

Rodriguez, 71, is the executive director and co-founder of Avenues for Justice, a 45-year-old community-based alternative to incarceration (ATI) program, one of the first of its kind. AFJ engages in court advocacy for juvenile offenders between the ages of 13 and 24, aiming to reduce or alter their sentences, and offering them a second chance through their program instead of being sentenced to detention or prison. Through referrals from lawyers, friends or teachers of kids who have been convicted, AFJ advocates are able to step in and help. They speak with judges and prosecutors, and offer that instead of facing prison time, the kids go through AFJ’s program.

Photo by Olivier Lafontant

Rodriguez launched Avenues for Justice in 1979 as the Andrew Glover Youth Program, named after a Lower East Side police officer who had a positive impact on local kids, but it was renamed to Avenues for Justice in 2016. The organization was the brainchild of his late friend, Robert Siegal, a political science student at NYU who had approached him about starting a tutoring program affiliated with The Boys’ Club of New York, where Rodriguez worked in the mid-1970s. One day, a boy from the club asked them to join him in court; he was scared to go by himself. In sneakers and jeans, Rodriguez and Siegal appeared before the judge and explained their roles as mentors and tutors to the young boy. From that moment, Siegal birthed an idea — one that would change their lives, and the lives of many others, for decades to come.

Siegal passed away in 1978 from a heart-related illness, and left it to Rodriguez to carry on the mission. Almost 50 years later, Rodriguez is something of a celebrity around the courthouse. Everyone makes an effort to greet him — officers, secretaries, even judges. “Hello darling,” one Supreme Court justice said before embracing him inside the courtroom.

He’s worked hard to establish comfortability and trust with the people he interacts with inside the justice system. “This is how I work,” he remarked.

“I tell him all the time that his name is so fitting, because it accurately describes what he is and what he means to a lot of people,” said Elizabeth Frederick, chief operating officer of AFJ. “Everyone knows him… he’s like the unofficial mayor of the Lower East Side.”

Growing up in a one-parent household in the projects on the Lower East Side, Rodriguez saw countless kids around him being arrested and tossed into the criminal justice system firsthand, feeding the machine of the prison industrial complex. “When you walk into — even today — into the system, you will see a sea of young people of color, and there’s something really wrong with that,” Rodriguez said. “Which is one of the reasons why I’m here and have been here.”  

He said that many young inner-city kids turn to crime as a result of their exposure to problematic things they see around them growing up. Many of these kids are from low-income families, and to them, selling drugs or committing crimes seems like the only way they can provide for themselves. “We’re living in a time where it doesn’t take much to be homeless,” Rodriguez said. But AFJ gives these kids mentorship and opportunities to grow socially and professionally in a positive environment.

Photo by Olivier Lafontant

The program features a myriad of resources and opportunities: job training, workshops, education re-entry assistance, tutoring, and paid internships — all in addition to a safe space to hang out at their community center locations in the Lower East Side and Harlem. They even offer a weeklong OSHA workshop that, upon completion, provides AFJ kids with an OSHA card, allowing them to work jobs in construction.

Rodriguez said that the success rate of the kids who go through AFJ is overwhelming. Ninety-seven percent of their cases have been successful — meaning they have not been repeat offenders. One of those kids was Edgar Muniz, a former heroin addict who was arrested as a youthful offender for selling drugs. An AFJ advocate spoke with Muniz’s probation officer to prevent him from facing jail time. Instead, Muniz spent six months in a substance use recovery program at Phoenix House New York and was put into the AFJ program. Now, he is a father, a successful real estate agent, and a DJ by the name of DJ EM. “It’s a great program,” Muniz said over the phone. “You feel like you have a friend in your court.”

Rodriguez remembers many of the minute details of the cases he’s worked on. With tears in his eyes, he told me about Elsie Flores, a former AFJ graduate who is now one of their Lower East Side court advocates. The first time he met her, she was in jail. She was being held on two drug convictions, and she was pregnant. Rodriguez got her out of jail and into the program and resolved her case as a youthful offender, leaving her with no criminal record. She went on to graduate from John Jay College with a degree in criminal justice, and worked as a pharmacy technician at a national drugstore chain. Ten years later, Flores returned to Rodriguez and said, “Look, Angel. You helped me, I want to give back.” In 2010, he hired her as a court advocate, and she later received the Robin Hood Heroes Award in 2022 for her service with AFJ.

“I get up every day and I know that I am making an impact and changing somebody’s life,” Flores said. “And that’s worth getting up every day to go as hard as I do to learn more so I can do more –– and do better. [Avenues for Justice] saved my life.”

Now in his 70s, Rodriguez is looking to retire, passing on the legacy of AFJ to Frederick –– whom he has been training for 20 years. “It’s important for me to put somebody in my place who believes in my mission, and she does,” he said. “She understands my mission to help as many kids as I can across the city.”

He isn’t sure what he is going to do with all the free time retirement will give him. “It’s going to be difficult for me. I’ve been busy growing this organization at all costs, day and night. I haven’t had a lot of time for myself,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be very different.”

He said he will probably play some more golf. Growing up, his dream was to move to Florida and become a professional golfer –– one of the first Puerto Ricans to do so. His life turned out to be much different.

by Vic Verbalaitis



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