From Crime to Capitalism

In a downtown Brooklyn office building, there isn't a power tie in sight. Teens dressed in baggy pants and Knicks jackets sign in at the front desk and move to a conference room to discuss what makes a successful entrepreneur.

"He's got 'G,' " says Robert, one of the teens. That's "G," as in "game," as in how Michael Jordan plays hoops.

Robert's reply is part of the "theory" of learning to be a legitimate businessman. The seven other teenagers are here because they know how to wheel, deal, and sell. Unfortunately, their product was crack cocaine or some other illegal drug.

A judge or probation officer has referred them to LEGIT-Youth Entrepreneurship Program, an effort that tries to steer the teens' natural instinct to make money toward legal enterprises and away from a life of crime.

Already, the young criminals-turned-capitalists have formed three enterprises, and some of the participants will become "partners," sharing in any profits the budding businesses earn.

"These are good teens who made bad decisions - they have the entrepreneurial spirit but the wrong product," says Sharon Content, the program director and a former budget analyst on Wall Street.

Such efforts are part of a growing national push toward trying to prevent teens from becoming hardened criminals. For this fiscal year, Congress has more than doubled the grants going toward youth crime prevention and substance-abuse programs. Only last week, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presented $14 million in new grants for mentoring programs to help 7,500 at-risk children.

"There's more happening, there's more resources going into it, and communities are looking at this opportunity as a time to do very thoughtful strategic planning," says Shay Bilchik, administrator at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington. "They just don't throw money at a problem. They assess the problem and target it in a very meaningful way," he adds.

For example, California's San Diego County, which has increased its funding this year, recently opened after-school programs at 38 middle schools to help keep children off the streets during the prime-time crime hours of 3 to 8 p.m. "If they don't have things to do, that's how they get involved with drugs, sex, and experimenting with gangs," says Sandra McBrayer, executive director of the city's Children's Initiative.

As part of its efforts, San Diego surveys the children to see what type of program appeals to them. They found the children were interested in learning how to cook, since they often end up making dinner for their families, and how to baby sit, since many take care of their younger brothers and sisters. This has increased attendance at the after-school programs. "This is different than agencies saying, 'We know what's best, here's what you need,' " says Ms. McBrayer, a former Teacher of the Year.

The new programs are not a substitute for punishment. The philosophy at the US Department of Justice is for a "balanced approach" to reducing juvenile crime. This means that juveniles will still be held accountable for their actions, but there is an emphasis on helping steer at-risk children away from crime in the first place and trying to rehabilitate those who have made their first mistake. "Your biggest bang is in prevention," says Mr. Bilchik.

Jacksonville, Fla., is one city that mixes a get-tough approach with prevention efforts. State Attorney Harry Shorstein estimates he has sent more than 1,000 juveniles to adult prison since 1993 - an approach a growing number of cities are taking. But Jacksonville doesn't just throw away the key. Once in prison, the children attend school, are given a mentor, job training, and counseling in anger management. "Everything is done to return them to a better environment," says Mr. Shorstein.

Jacksonville also asks teachers to identify at-risk nine- to 12-year-old children, who are then bused every Friday to the juvenile wing of the prison. "They are seeing the kids who had been on the street and their idols behind bars," says Shorstein. After a rap session with a few of the inmates, he says the children get the message: Prison is not the place to be. "They hear that they don't get to watch TV, they don't get to see their mom," says Shorstein. A Florida State University study has found juvenile crime has dropped more than 50 percent in Jacksonville since the new tactics started.

Nationally, juvenile crime is on the wane. After peaking in 1994, violent juvenile crime declined 3 percent in 1995, 6 percent in 1996, and 4 percent in 1997. The number of juvenile violent-crime arrests, however, was still 49 percent higher than in 1988. And juveniles are increasingly involved in the drug trade, according to FBI statistics.

"We can't say we've turned the corner," says Bilchik. "We need more improvement and more decreases. We need to see long-term and substantial reductions."

To get those improvements, the Justice Department is encouraging communities to develop a comprehensive strategy that includes strengthening families and expanding programs such as mentoring and antitruancy efforts. Many of these are "community based" programs, which are dreamed up by local leaders or social workers.

Some of the community-based programs, such as LEGIT, are efforts to avoid giving teens hard time. "There are studies that show the recidivism rates are higher for those kids who are incarcerated versus those who are not," says Rebecca Holland, legal director for the Osborne Association, which has run the LEGIT program for the past six years.

Although Osborne has yet to measure the program's effectiveness, there are some indications the program is making some headway. There are three enterprises: Website design, a contracting business, and a catalog business for inmate care packages. During class, the mostly male teens sit around a kitchen table, drink fruit juice, and talk about business principles in a room filled with lockers and a stainless steel freezer where they store ingredients for the care packages. All of them get the opportunity to become a "partner," drawing up business plans and advertising ventures and receiving a share of any profits.

Even more important, the teens learn how to think like a businessman. "I try to teach them perfection," says Ms. Content.

The message has gotten through to Santiago Castro, arrested when he was 16 for selling crack. "I was trying to make quick money," he says.

Initially, the district attorney's office wanted him to go to prison for one to three years. But his attorney negotiated a five-year probation period, including 1-1/2 years at the Osborne program.

When he first arrived, he knew virtually nothing about computers. Now he's part of the Web-site design team. Recently, an immigration service hired him to set up its Web site. Even though he's finished the court-mandated program, he continues to come every day.

Atiba Barrett has also completed his 1-1/2 years at LEGIT but he continues to return as well. "The streets are not safe, and you got to deal with the pressure," says Atiba, who sports corn rows. At Osborne, he says, Content and another instructor, LeeRoy Jordan, provide counseling. "They are like family," he says.

The program has also helped Eduardo Troutman, who was arrested when he was 14 for carrying a gun.

Today, he's the president of LEGIT's care-package business, which will offer Brooklyn residents an opportunity to send food to relatives and friends serving time at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. Eddie's ready for business as soon as he gets prison approval.

"We've cut our prices so we're competitive," says Eddie as he checks the inventory. "I like this. It's a chance to do something positive."

In street talk, you might say Eddie's got "G."

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