March 6, 2024

Keeping Young People Out of Prison – and On a Better Path – for 45 Years

Angel Rodriguez is the executive editor of Avenues for Justice.
Angel Rodriguez is the executive editor of Avenues for Justice. TOM BENEDICT FROM RICHARD CADAN PHOTOGRAPHY


Part of the criminal-justice reform movement of the past several years has been the growing understanding that putting young people in prison leads to bad outcomes down the line. Last year, The Sentencing Project released a review of existing research finding that not only did incarcerating young people set them up for recidivism but that it significantly cut into their future education and employment opportunities and left them poised for physical and mental health problems.

Currently, several programs exist in New York City to keep young people intersecting with the criminal justice system out of prison, but perhaps the oldest and best known is Avenues for Justice, cofounded on the Lower East Side in the 1970s by Robert Siegal and Angel Rodriguez. Still helmed by Rodriguez, 72 – Siegel died young shortly after cofounding the organization – Avenues for Justice says (via its website) that it offers an array of services and program to 500 New York City young people a year and that, on average, 94% of their court-involved participants are not reconvicted of a new crime within three years of enrollment in its program, which includes everything from individual and family therapy to job training and placement.

Before Rodriguez leaves his long-held post – he’s currently looking for a successor – New York Nonprofit Media spoke with the openly emotional Lower East Side native about how and why he ended up devoting his life to young people, how Avenues For Justice intervenes in youth court cases and what the program offers to help young people forge pathways other than lives in and out of the prison system.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanks for talking with us today. Can you start by telling us what you do as though we were seatmates at a dinner party?

I operate a nonprofit called Avenues for Justice that serves inner-city young people. We support and stand up with young people who get arrested in the system, to try to protect their rights and provide what I call inexpensive and reliable community-based alternatives to incarceration. It's costly to incarcerate a young person – almost a half-million dollars a year – and we can keep that same youngster in the community with support services for about $6,000 a year. Too many of the judges and prosecutors in the system have no idea who these young people are other than a criminal complaint, so we identify them to the system, on the premise that when we're young, we all make mistakes, but in poor inner-city communities the price for mistakes is too high, in terms of convictions. Even if young people don't do jail time, convictions impact their lives in ways they don't even know.

Can you walk us through the origins of the program?

I started this program with my predecessor, Robert Siegel, in 1974, but we didn't incorporate until 1979. We were responding to the need in the community. The Lower East Side, where I grew up, was very poor and burned out. I lived in the projects with a single mom and a brother and sister, all of us trying to stay safe in a community that was devastated by crime and drugs. My mother became a bodega owner to support us. Our job as kids was to not get in trouble. Like all the other neighborhood kids, we didn't have vacations. Parents would send us to the park and tell us to have fun but don't get in trouble. I used to work for the Boys Club of New York as I was going to school, and I met Robert when he came in to run a tutorial program. He came to the Lower East Side, met these kids and fell in love with their problems and felt that he could help, so he got his [pause] – When I speak of Robert, who's not with us [he died of an illness in 1978 at age 28], it always breaks my heart [cries].

So Robert moved into the Lower East Side with his parents paying his rent of $100. One day, a kid asked Robert and me to go to court with him because he was scared, and we did. The judge said to the kid, "Who are these two guys with you in sneakers and T-shirts?" and the kid said, "That's my tutor and counselor." The judge then called us up to discuss this kid, which led to the concept [of accompanying minors to court to advocate for them] that Robert felt was immediately needed. So we both left the Boys Club to do this work. Robert was doing it out of his hole-in-the-wall studio apartment with a dog he found on the street. The apartment was always filled with kids. I recognized that he authentically wanted to help, so we started this program.

But he had a heart problem that I didn't know about. Robert would never miss a court appointment with a kid, so one day when he didn't show up, I climbed up the fire escape to his apartment and found him deceased. So I lost my mentor and partner right after we incorporated the program, but I couldn't walk away from the work – it was my community. So I fought off drug dealers to take over a building to get kids off the streets.

Walk us through a typical scenario with a young person.

A typical case is referred by an attorney, but it could be by a parent, a cop, a teacher or a community member. We connect with a Legal Aid or a private attorney for the kid. Our kids have to be ages 13 to 24. We sort through the criminal complaints to determine whether we should [work with the kid]. The complaint and the rap sheet tell me whether the kid is a virgin to the system, or how many times they've been arrested, and for what. I don't get involved with shooting cases and I try to stay away from gang violence. So say if the complaint is a nonviolent robbery, then we interview the kid to try to determine if he's robbing people for food or is involved in drugs and needs treatment. So we set forward a plan of action that we take into the courtroom and appeal with the attorney. We'll tell the court that we're providing services for the kid and we'll have him back in school, or on a curfew, or get him help for a drug problem. Or we'll say that he has to go into a residential setting, which we monitor. In most cases, of course these kids don't want to go to trial, so we'll try to resolve the case with a plea.

Does that mean the young person will come out of it without a record marring their future?

Yes and no. If they're under 18 and have no prior arrests or convictions, we make every effort to seal the case. If the kid is 19, they're looking at a conviction, so we try to get the court to understand how this whole scenario happened to try to reduce the case from a felony to a misdemeanor. I've become an expert in plea bargaining.

Okay, and once you secure an alternative to incarceration for a young person?

They'll have the right to plead guilty to the charge in return for having the record sealed. Then they go on probation unless the judge assigns the kid to us for x number of years. These are remarkable young people. Many of them just need an opportunity. We do a lot of workshops addressing everything from sexuality to education to a lot of online legal classes, which all the participants have to engage in. We have art classes and group therapy. We work on getting kids back to school. We have cohorts of employment where we partner with businesses to take them on and we pay the kids $15 an hour for about eight weeks, with the hope that business will keep them on after that. We have a program with OSHA safety certification so they can work construction jobs, and we provide the hardhats. And we're doing the same thing in food because that's where kids can get employment right now. Our kids suffer from not understanding the [employment] market, so we have organizations that come to our centers and spend the day helping them do their resumes.

Is school or work mandated to be part of your program?

That's a tricky question. Yes, we want the kid to get his high school diploma. We provide tutors and computer labs.

But is it mandated?

Traditionally, we want every kid in school if they're under 18, but it's not mandated. The only dealbreaker I have is getting rearrested or just ignoring the program. I also don't take sex offenders or young people who are seriously mentally damaged who I can't talk [to].  

What's a typical day like for you?

I live alone on Avenue A on the Lower East Side, two blocks away from the center. Five years ago, I lost to cancer someone with whom I was making plans to spend the rest of my life. Since that happened, I haven't focused on anyone seriously, although I have some friends and I date here and there.

I wake up around 6:30 a.m. to check my phone and see what's going on, if any staff has called. I generally have a cup of coffee and jump in the shower, then I get to our office in the courthouse at 100 Centre St. which we've had the past 40 years. That enables me to jump into any courtroom, and it's why our program is widely known to judges and prosecutors and defenders, which makes my job a lot easier. So in addition to our kids' court cases going on, I might be talking to a funder or to media or to the city. I'm usually in and out of that office until 2-3pm, then I go to our center on the Lower East Side or the one in Harlem, depending on the day, usually around 5 or 5:30 p. m. when activities are [happening]. Then I might go have coffee with a friend or go home and change my clothes to go visit a family [of a young client]. We are everything to the community. I'm not your typical E.D. I created this program. Often the parent wants to see me, so I go there to discuss their kid. The best work is done when parents are involved, which isn't always the case.

Then I come home around 7 to 8 p.m. I work out on my elliptical machine and watch the news, then I'll go back to reading materials or stuff I have to get done, or thinking about projects I'm working on or meetings I have the next day. I go to bed around midnight or 1 a.m. I have a hard time unwinding, but once I'm asleep, I sleep well. I'm generally okay with four to six hours of sleep.

On weekends, I play golf and I also build golf clubs. I tee off at 7 a.m. and I'm done by noon. I also have two golf tournaments that raise funds for the organization.

Can you tell some stories about young people who went through the program?

I just had a guy call me who's 40 now who said he wanted to thank me for helping him get through a difficult time in his youth. Now he's an electrician, married and has his own house in New Jersey. Another kid who I'm still in contact with, two years ago I got his record sealed and got him probation. He wanted to join the Marines. The Marine recruiter calls me and says, "We can't take him [because of his involvement with the court system]." Of course I don't stop there. I went in front of the judge. Within a week, she terminated his probation and he got inducted into the Marines. I'm still in contact with the kid every week. He called and said, "Angel, I want to be an officer in the Marine Corps." [cries] And he became an officer and lives in a big house in San Diego with his three kids, who'll never know poverty.

I had a case of a young woman who was shoplifting. She pled guilty and I got her a non-jail sentence. I worked with this judge and she earned probation. But she flubbed her probation and went before the judge again. She was blocked from getting a city job because of her conviction. So I go up to the judge to say that these kids are trying to move forward. The judge calls the prosecutor and says, "I'm here with Angel, and this young woman took a course to provide shots in hospitals, and Angel wants to replead the deal to a misdemeanor." The next day, we did just that. That gave her a life again. This happened two weeks ago and now she's working on getting that job.

On your website, it says that it costs $500,000 to incarcerate a young person for a year versus $6,300 to have them do your program. How do you come up with those numbers?

The $6,300 is a general average that reflects the intensive work we do, the referrals we make, giving kids debit cards – everything we do for them. The incarceration figure is actually $500,000, which is mind boggling to me.

But what does that astronomical number reflect?

Housing, security, transportation – that's what the city is spending.

Okay. How is the city doing in terms of the ratio of young people who are incarcerated versus diverted to a program like yours?

We were one of the few nonprofits doing this kind of work in the 1970s. Today there are a lot more alternatives to incarceration, especially in the last ten years as a lot of people have been focused on criminal justice reform. But there are still too many kids going to jail. I had a case in 2019 when a judge set a $50,000 bail on an assault case and this kid ended up sitting through the pandemic at Rikers. And this kid doesn't require incarceration. This was not your typical assault; he was recovering a little girl's bike. So I screamed bloody murder at the judge, "This is outrageous that this kid had to be in Rikers through the pandemic!" So long story short, we were able to get the kid out immediately.

What are some new things your program has developed in recent years?

We started a therapy unit that does individual therapy for kids and also does family therapy in Spanish. Also, like I mentioned, we started the employment cohorts.

What personal skills would you say you've developed in your job since 1979?

I think I'm a good listener. I'm also an expert in legal advocacy. I think people trust me and rely on me. And I hope my commitment to the work rubs off on everyone who works for me. I currently have a staff of 12 that's growing. My work is very personal for me. I live this program. But at this stage I'm also looking at retirement.

Yes, I found the ad for your job online and was going to ask if you were looking to pass the torch.

Yes, that time has come. I'm 72 years old. I need more time to look after my mom, who's in Puerto Rico. I've been training people from within and my hope is that I can bring up someone who's been doing this work for quite a while under me.

What has been a structural challenge of the work you do? Something systemic that blocks your work?

Funding. If I could wave a funding wand, I could hire more people.

But your material said that you had an unprecedentedly good year fiscally.

We met our budget. It was a great year. But in the nonprofit world, if you give me $100,000, I can't stash it for the future – I have to spend it that year and then report to the funder later that year as to how we spent it.

Did you get some multiyear funds this past year?

The money from the Robin Hood Foundation, one of my largest funders, is year-to-year. I don't B.S. my funders and they like me for that. So even as I phase out of this program, I have to keep dealing with the funders through the transition because a lot of them have been super loyal to me.

What will you do when you leave Avenues for Justice?

I don't know. One of the hardest things for me will be when my phone doesn't ring. [cries] My phone rings all the time, sometimes with serious crises. Some people would be tired of it, but I've always welcomed it because I've been affected.

Meaning you come from the same world as the kids you help?

Yes. And I've been effective. I'll pick up the garbage as well as make the referral.

To wrap up, how do you feel about having made this work your life's work?

I'm incredibly proud of the organization I've been able to build because it's touched the lives of so many people. It's been an amazing ride. I've enjoyed it to no end. I've seen the impact.


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