Being HIV Positive Might Land You in Jail. But That Is Changing

Whenever Robert Suttle thinks about his time in jail, his eyes go soft, he lets out a long breath and his lips purse a bit. It’s noticeable that he — after almost a decade — still gets emotional about what put him behind bars.
In 2008, while working as an assistant clerk for the Louisiana Court of Appeals, Suttle went through a bitter breakup that resulted in a tit-for-tat trial, ending in Suttle being sentenced to six months in jail and registering as a sex offender for intentionally exposing a sexual partner to HIV. But there was no transmission of the virus.
And even though Suttle says he disclosed his status to his partner and that the sex was consensual, it didn’t matter much under Louisiana’s HIV exposure law, which states that anyone with HIV or AIDS who has unprotected sex can be tried and charged with a nonviolent felony. Offenders can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and must register as a sex offender in some cases.
But Louisiana’s intentional HIV exposure statute, enacted in 1987, revised in 1993 and again in 2011, is out of date and not backed by science. For example, spitting and biting are considered grounds to be charged for criminal exposure to AIDS, even though it’s impossible to transfer the virus through spit and exceedingly rare for HIV to be passed on through biting (and the risk is nonexistent if the skin isn’t broken).  
What’s more, Suttle, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2002, couldn’t pass the virus on anyway. Antiretroviral treatment had made his viral load undetectable, which means the level of HIV in his blood was so low that it would’ve been impossible to transmit.
“I didn’t quite understand how it could come to this,” Suttle says. “It was being gay and HIV positive that led me to … being criminally liable.”
As more people become aware of possible criminal charges — thanks in part to local reporting on alleged offenders — some of those most at-risk are unwilling to get tested. Criminalizing one’s status has created a stigma, advocates say, which in turn can endanger whole communities.

Robert Suttle speaks at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, July 2018

“[People know] that if they test positive, they can get charged or arrested,” says Gina Brown, an HIV and AIDS activist in New Orleans who is HIV positive. “The laws need to change, and people in charge need to get educated.”
Across the nation, HIV transmissions have been steadily declining since the beginning of the decade. At the same time, the demographics of the disease have changed. No longer does HIV primarily affect gay men; today, those who are most at risk also include injection drug users and poor people of color, particularly in the South. Despite that shift, regulations and laws that criminalize one’s HIV status still abound, and they have roots in outdated science that has largely been debunked.
There are currently 26 states with HIV-specific criminalization laws, some of which penalize behavior regardless of whether the virus was actually transmitted. That number was higher in the 1980s and ’90s, when fear of HIV — and myths around how it spread — was rampant. Lawmakers claimed at the time that the statutes were meant to protect the general public. Instead, they have had the opposite effect: Since you can’t be prosecuted if you don’t know your status, there’s an incentive to not getting tested. Studies have also shown that HIV criminalization has little to no effect on deterring people from spreading the virus willingly, and in fact, such laws have only worsened its spread.
Nearly all of the states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses — in 2017, Louisiana ranked third — have HIV-specific exposure laws still on the books.
“People don’t know the collateral consequences,” says Suttle, who now works as an assistant director at Sero Project, a nonprofit that fights stigma and discrimination by focusing on HIV criminalization. “These laws hinder people from getting care.”
HIV not a crime
Sero at the HIV is Not A Crime Training Academy, June 2018

Suttle says the biggest obstacle is education, especially among people who still view HIV and AIDS as a death sentence.
“Education of the masses cannot be stressed enough. You can talk to anybody, and people honestly think that [people charged under HIV exposure laws] should be fully prosecuted and locked up,” Suttle says, adding that Sero Project has tried to humanize people living with HIV through anti-criminalization campaigns, lobbying and public outreach.
Sero Project is one of only a handful of national organizations — the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the Center for HIV Law and Policy are two others — that have been on the front lines of fighting against HIV criminalization.
This year, Sero Project, in partnership with the Positive Women’s Network, launched a training academy to teach advocates how to organize and repeal state HIV criminalization laws. In South Carolina, Sero Project’s training helped establish a coalition of 50 lawmakers, advocates and nonprofits to try and change the state’s HIV criminalization laws.
HIV not a crime
Robert Suttle, July 2018

“They gave us the tools to do our own work here within our community, and educate people. Now we have more and more people who are interested, because every time we get out and share with the community, we’re getting more people asking about the laws,” says Stacy Jennings, chair of the Positive Women’s Network regional chapter in South Carolina. “It’s sad that [people living with HIV] don’t know [about the laws] because they should know. Every chance we get we’re teaching them.”
As a result of Sero Project’s efforts to get communities educated on local laws, Suttle has seen a sea change in the number of people coming forward to fight the stigma around being HIV positive.
And that’s been helpful in places like Louisiana, where advocates say the need for educating and empowering people to get tested and stay healthy is dire.
“We actually have been able to get into the offices of legislators and tell them why this law is outdated and plain wrong,” says Brown, the AIDS activist. “We have some of the highest rates of HIV transmission in the country, and that won’t get better so long as there are laws that actively make people fearful of getting tested.”

This is the third installment in NationSwell’s multimedia series “Positive in the South,” which explores the HIV crisis in the Southern U.S., and profiles the people and organizations working to alleviate it.

Your Brain on Virtual Reality

It was famed critic Roger Ebert who first who first called film “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” But over the past few years another medium has begun to claim that mantle: virtual reality.
As the kickoff to the winter film festival season approaches, a wave of new projects promises to immerse viewers in different worlds that help them better connect with subjects. But VR’s power to stoke empathy reaches further than just the movie industry. Even as far back as 1992 the federal government recognized the impact VR can have on military training exercises.
Journalists, activists and doctors are among those using the technology to bring about action around some of today’s social issues.

Solitary Confinement

In 2016, The Guardian was rolling through an online and print series on life in solitary confinement. The newspaper’s stories, videos and podcasts appeared around the same time that Albert Woodfox, a 69-year-old man who had spent over four decades in solitary confinement, was released from prison, renewing the debate on how the U.S. treats its prisoners.
As part of their series, The Guardian produced its first VR project, called “6×9,” which simulates the experience of being held in isolation for 23 hours a day, every day. “People hadn’t thought the cell would be so bad, or so small,” Francesca Panetta, The Guardian’s executive editor for virtual reality, told the Digital News Initiative last year. “They didn’t realize that people were in for nonviolent crimes, or for so long.”
Since then, other news organizations have used VR to explore the psychological toll that isolation can have, such as 2017’s After Solitary, produced in part by PBS’s Frontline.

In an immersive virtual reality film, Planned Parenthood shows viewers what it’s like to be harassed and insulted while entering the clinic for an abortion.


It’s one thing to hear about the throngs of angry protesters that confront women who visit abortion clinics. It’s another to experience that vitriol for yourself.
Across the Line” was produced by Planned Parenthood and debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Featuring real audio of protesters outside of clinics, the VR film gives viewers a first-hand experience of what it’s like to access an abortion while being harassed, cajoled and insulted.
In one screening, a Republican lawmaker was so visibly shaken by the film that he stormed out of the room, says Molly Eagan, vice president of Planned Parenthood Experience and the executive producer of “Across the Line.”
“Seventy percent of the people I showed [the film to] were in tears,” she tells NationSwell. “I am not a filmmaker; I’m a public health person. I did not have any idea about the emotional impact that a seven-minute VR piece would have on the viewers.”

Pain Management

As the number of Americans addicted to painkillers and other opioids remains a significant problem, VR is providing drug-free pain management to hospital patients. The Virtual Relief Organization, a project sponsored by the Center for Social Change, brings VR headsets to medical facilities at no cost, allowing patients to simulate the experience of traveling to destinations around the world as part of their recovery process.
The technology may even be helpful in revealing injuries that doctors have a nearly impossible time diagnosing, such as mild concussions caused by small impact during athletics or military training.
The company Sync-Think recently received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to start using headsets to track eye movements when an injury has been sustained. The technology, Eye-Sync, records, views and analyzes eye movements and can analyze brain health in 60 seconds, according to the company.
“The EYE-SYNC technology was initially developed to identify changes in brain function after injury,” founder and Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Jamshid Ghajar says in a press release. “However its application has evolved significantly in recent years, and we intend to leverage our core technology to expand the many ways we can help people get the most out of their daily life activities.”
For the time being, the verdict is still out on whether the form can truly change how people think and act. You can, however, say it’s entertaining and seems to be helping in some way.

This Nonprofit Has Hit on the Way to Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Prison

On a gray morning earlier this year, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey was talking with Omari Atiba, a convicted felon, in Newark when they were interrupted by Atiba’s phone. As the recently released prisoner’s cell blasted the ’70s disco staple “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” McGreevey couldn’t help but nod along, full white-man-overbite style.
Few could blame the former politician for feeling upbeat. For the past three years, McGreevey — no stranger himself to controversy, having resigned his governorship in 2004 — has been working to remove the obstacles that face ex-inmates once they’re released. On the morning they met, Atiba was just two days out of a New Jersey state prison, where he served 30 years for murder.
Transforming ex-convicts like Atiba into responsible, engaged civilians is a project that has earned McGreevey the support of Chris Christie and four other former Garden State governors. It also led him to John Koufos, a former criminal defense lawyer whose own fall from grace after a drunken hit-and-run accident in 2012 resulted in disbarment and 16 months in prison. Today, Koufos is second-in-command at New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), the nonprofit founded by McGreevey in 2014.
NJRC has five outposts in the state, including Jersey City, Kearney, Newark, Paterson and Toms River. Its mission is to overhaul onetime prisoners’ lives by overseeing their sobriety, and training and placing them in meaningful jobs. The ambitious project carries an annual price tag of $3 million, which is funded largely by the state.
With a roster of around 1,600 clients, NJRC’s success rate has been praised by the Manhattan Institute as among the best of the New York City–area reentry prison programs. According to a recent analysis by the think tank, U.S. prisons release approximately 650,000 inmates every year. Within the first 12 months, more than half are unable to secure identification and jobs that earn them enough legal income to survive.
But certain programs, like NJRC’s, are proving successful in preventing such scenarios. From January to July 2016, NJRC placed around 1,000 former prisoners in jobs spanning sales, transportation, food services, manufacturing and public works, many with on-ramps to more lucrative positions with building-trade unions.

Omari Atiba (right), pictured here with former Gov. Jim McGreevey, worked with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation to find employment after being released from prison.

That 62 percent job-placement rate likely helped NJRC achieve its low 19.7 percent recidivism. Though that figure is impressive, it spans just six months; the true measure of success will be where these former inmates are five years from now. As the most recent national survey by the Department of Justice found, an estimated three-quarters of ex-offenders are arrested for a new crime within five years of release.
Understanding McGreevey’s and Koufos’ backgrounds helps explain their strategy. McGreevey, as former governor, knows New Jersey influencers, like the chair of the state DMV, and has persuaded them to do things like untangle knotty driver’s records to clear a path toward regaining the right to drive, often essential to maintaining a job. And Koufos, who handled hundreds of pro bono cases for the NAACP before he went to prison, has recruited close to 70 young lawyers to clear up unresolved past infractions such as traffic tickets that can, and often do, return former inmates to their cells.
“It’s incredibly sad,” McGreevey said. “So many of our clients have a sense that catastrophe is right around the corner.”
Sadder still is that often they’re right. Koufos says missteps like missed child support payments can easily secure ex-offenders a return ticket to prison. “A lot of times folks don’t participate in family court” because they’re scared of the outcome, which may include fines. “When they have a lawyer holding their hand, they’re no longer afraid.”
Though they are both the heroes of their own second acts, Koufos and McGreevey are an odd couple. McGreevey studied to be a priest after resigning his Trenton post. Koufos’ wobbly relationship with religion surfaces only at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “More jobs, less Jesus,” Koufos often reminds McGreevey when they’re talking to clients. But ultimately McGreevey is less concerned with helping clients find God than with helping them find footing in a social landscape built to topple them.
He meets weekly with prisoners across New Jersey to explain NJRC’s mission as well as his own rocky road to redemption. He was the closeted gay governor who left in disgrace, he reminds prisoners. What if it had taken him until his deathbed to come to the realizations that have helped him move forward?
Both men see every day as a chance to stub out others’ doomsday narratives. Atiba, the convicted murderer, now weighs fish in the seafood department at Newark’s ShopRite.
And Patrick D’Aiuto, who once lived in the cell across from Koufos and was released from prison in 2013 after 18 years for armed robbery, is now a commercial roofer with a union. He makes in the high $20s per hour and recently bought a condo.
“I spent pretty much my whole adult life in prison, and I knew that a lot of these programs can be tongue-in-cheek. I always wondered, Why doesn’t the media go to these people who claim to run these great programs and say, ‘If you actually helped someone get a good job, produce that person.’ They’d never be able to produce anybody.”
NJRC, D’Aiuto says, is different: “They’re not just getting guys jobs at Burger King. They’re getting them jobs with benefits that will get them a middle-class existence, so they can lead a productive life.”
Not that they succeed every time. A healthy percentage of clients, most of whom are addicts being treated through NJRC’s recovery channels, relapse. If a client is using, he gets a warning. If there is a second infraction, he’s out. Koufos is generally the one who does the kicking out.
He doesn’t mind, though.
“I dedicated myself to a life of service because of the pain I caused when I was addicted,” Koufos says. “If we can help the next guy recover, we stop the next victim from happening.”
Continue reading “This Nonprofit Has Hit on the Way to Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Prison”

Feminist Writers Break the Glass Ceiling, the Push to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline and More

How Feminists Took On the Mainstream Media and Won, Quartz
Women’s magazines have come a long way from publishing the sex and beauty tips of decades past. Likewise, feminist writing has moved from the hidden corners of the blogosphere. What’s given rise to strong female voices in mainstream media? As Quartz notes, “Only in the internet age have feminist voices finally been able to break the stranglehold that straight, white men have historically had on the media.”
The Virginia Democrat Keeping Your Kids Out of Jail, OZY
Recently elected Virginia state senator Jenn McClellan is on a mission to do away with the school-to-prison pipeline. Her unique ability to draw bipartisan support is making her particularly effective in passing legislation, and she’s using her influence to push for limits on student suspension and police presence in schools.
Inside the Schools That Want to Create the Next Mark Zuckerberg — Starting at Age 5, Inc.
Youth entrepreneurship programs are on the rise in schools across the globe, with students pitching, launching and even profiting off of their own businesses. “It’s your neighborhood lemonade stand on steroids,” says Inc. As the nature of work evolves, educators are rethinking the system to prioritize 21st-century skills like innovation, persistence and networking.
MORE: How Digital Tools Are Helping in the Fight for Gender Equality

One on One With the Police

Ikeem H., a 23-year-old from North Philadelphia, grew up selling dope to pay for food and clothes. One day, when police “blitzed” a well-known corner for dealing, he ended up in cuffs. Marked with a criminal record, Ikeem asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy. He says officers routinely pinned drugs on him. They told him to shut up and tossed him in patrol cars.
“They messed up my life,” Ikeem reflects. “And I honestly would never forgive ’em. So, I don’t even really like talking with cops.”
At least, that’s what he said before sitting down to share pizza and chat with officers attending a meet-up hosted by a Pennsylvania nonprofit which focuses on rebuilding trust between police departments and minority youth. The organization, Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC), trains Philadelphia cops to empathize with inner-city youth. Its seminars aren’t a certain fix to rebuilding trust between police and the communities they serve, but data collected from DMC and other case studies around the country, suggest they are making a difference.

To rebuild trust, the Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Contact gets Philadelphia cops and inner-city youth in the same room.

These open conversations are happening across the country. In New Jersey’s suburbs, a teen asked a detective, “Do you guys think we’re good kids?” Cops shared tips about dealing with online harassment and dating violence in Seattle. Orlando participants role-played a traffic stop before reviewing citizens’ rights during the encounter.
Ikeem volunteered to attend the Philly meet-up. Within hours, he gained a new understanding for police officers’ duties. “It’s more we can do on our side, ya know: hear ’em out first, know that they doin’ [their] job,” he says, explaining that cops often aren’t looking to make arrests; rather, they’re sent to unfamiliar locations to respond to 9-1-1 calls.
These types of meet-ups, which are formally known as “facilitated dialogue,” also appear to be associated with a drop in crime. After forums in a Boston public housing complex, violent crime in that neighborhood decreased substantially, dropping 31 percent between 2009 and 2010. Drug offenses also plunged 57 percent over a three-year period.
Nationally, the number of juvenile arrests decreased 50 percent from 2005 to 2014. Researchers believe that these forums may be a contributing factor for the drop in crime.
Meet-ups are designed to breakdown negative perceptions of both cops and kids. Stereotypes can get in the way of keeping communities safe, says Rhonda McKitten, who helped develop and expand DMC’s program across Philadelphia and into Connecticut and Florida. Police “don’t have the relationships that are going to help them get information,” McKitten says. “And young people … are not going to be able to go to them when they need help.”
But lucky for law enforcement, it’s easy to spread the impact of these meetings. After a decade of watching the interactions, Jay Paris, director of Youth Link, an organization that runs similar programs in Boston, estimates that only about four dozen kids need to attend the forums to rebuild trust with the police in a specific neighborhood.
Sometimes, the payoff can be even greater. Ryan Rivera, a North Philly twenty-something who’s attended multiple DMC forums over the years, has a new life goal: “To become a Philadelphia police officer.”

The Impressive Top-to-Bottom Makeover of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

Teenagers make mistakes. They sneak out past curfew to drink at a house party, shoplift clothes, graffiti their names in bathroom stalls, talk back to authorities and throw punches in heated moments. Our juvenile justice system views some of these violations as youthful folly; others are deemed criminal offenses. Unjustly, skin color or socioeconomic status might determine how the behavior is categorized. Suburban white youth are tsk-tsked, while urban black children are handcuffed and jailed.
Massachusetts created the nation’s first juvenile correctional system around 1846, and it also led the first reforms by shutting down Dickensian “training schools.” But during the high-crime spike of the 1990s, the punitive model common to most states made a resurgence. However, while laws passed making it easier to try kids as adults, a group of fed-up employees teamed up to reform youth courts, juvenile detention facilities and probation offices from within. While much of the country continues to arrest more than 1.02 million children every year, Massachusetts reduced the number in custody down to a daily average of about 190 youth, or 2,240 admissions annually. These state workers also dramatically slashed the number of children under age 14 placed in secure facilities from roughly 500 to just a handful.
What changed? The state wised up to normal teenage behavior and its institutions’ role in either furthering or freezing maturity. Reformers implemented what they call “positive youth development” as the main priority. Under this philosophy, which draws much of its insight from developmental psychology, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system stopped focusing on the bad things kids shouldn’t do and started promoting positive outcomes. When a child makes a mistake, the state steps in as the de facto parent, teacher, mentor and neighbor. Recognizing that youth need to grasp a sense of their own future in order to avoid a life of crime, college graduation and job placement replace recidivism as measures of success.
“For example, the kid who comes into court for fighting at school will ordinarily be put on probation, where he’s told, ‘Don’t fight, follow all the rules, keep a curfew.’ But if this is an 8th grade boy who’s old enough to be in high school and reading at a 2nd grade level, he’ll never succeed on probation. It’s never enough to order children to behave better. We need to look at their life circumstances and ask, ‘What resources, opportunities, services or supports are they going to need in order to be able to behave better?’ asks Joshua Dohan, head of the state public defenders’ juvenile unit. “As adults, we need to do something kids are not good at, which is taking the long view. What do we need to invest in over the long run so that we can nurture a healthy adult, as opposed to punishing a kid because he missed school one day?”
A little over a decade ago, Dohan, a public defender representing youth in Boston reached out to one of the men in charge of the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Dohan wanted to know if the official (who regularly locked up plenty of teenagers) wanted to join him at an upcoming conference on juvenile defense. “Ignorant” of the role good defense attorneys played in a child’s case, Edward Dolan, then deputy commissioner of Massachusetts’s Department of Youth Services, accepted. In an unexpected turning point, Massachusetts’s entire juvenile justice system started to flip. As the top leadership started collaborating, a punitive model slowly lost out to a restorative one.
For too long, each separate agency in the criminal justice system — from the lawyers in court, to guards in detention facilities, to officers in probation — had been caught up in its own institutional inertia, carrying out policies because that’s how they had always been done. There’d been some dissenting voices, most prominently Ned Loughran, a former priest who had agitated against harsh retribution for juveniles as head of DYS from 1985–1993. But on the whole, the agencies remained trapped within their respective silos. At the conference, focused on the entire juvenile justice system, Dohan and Dolan had their first chance to look outside their own roles, question the underlying rules and realign the system in kids’ best interests.
“Even though I’m in the business, it was the first time I was seeing the world through [the public defenders’] eyes. I put myself in their position, looking from a kid’s perspective and a…mother’s perspective at some of the things we did as an agency. We were like a machine,” Dolan says. “[Juvenile detention] was a pretty troubled agency at the time, overwhelmed and overcrowded. Even for the big leadership in the organization, we didn’t feel good about the way we were doing things. We were looking for a better pathway forward.”
Starting with that one conference where defense attorneys and a juvenile jailor found common ground, the agencies initiated a conversation about their overlapping roles in helping youth. Side by side, they could no longer blame other parts of the system for the dysfunction. From there, a group of bureaucrats started to rewrite the system together, unified under the banner of an approach that made more sense for children.
“Positive youth development” generally defines the field of academics applying insights from neuroscience and knowledge of human development to criminal justice. As practitioners, attorneys and officers usually don’t have time to get an advanced degree in social work, says Dohan. “The people who apply it have taken it on as their task to sort through and operationalize [the research] for youth workers, teachers, lawyers and probation officers to give us guidance about what works and what doesn’t and why.”
At the height of the War on Drugs, policymakers generally split along partisan lines about how to respond to criminal acts by youth. The right wing saw unchangeable “super-predators” who needed to be incarcerated to restore law and order, while leftists saw victims of poverty who needed counseling and therapy, says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research & Evaluation Center.
Both of these viewpoints are “incredibly biased in terms of class and race,” adds Butts, best known as one of the field’s founders, because they assume teens from high-crime communities are inherently more criminal than their peers elsewhere. The developmental approach, in contrast, doesn’t take a child’s actions as indicative of their character. Butts’s theory holds that the best way to stop crime is to encourage youth to acquire skills. Unlike the other two models, “the fact that a 17-year-old stole a bike doesn’t mean he’s destined to be an adult criminal,” Butts says.
Positive youth development maintains that five assets enable teens to mature into law-abiding citizens: strong bonds with adults and prosocial peers, a safe home, a healthy lifestyle, opportunities for civic engagement and an effective education and success in the labor market. Possessing these resources will make youth naturally begin to see that belonging to conventional society is more valuable, says Butts, than the short-term advantage one might accrue from committing a crime. If a young person feels connected to his community, “there’s more to lose by being caught stealing someone’s phone than by saving the few hundred dollars to buy a new one,” he adds.
“We have to be at least as good as criminal street gangs. They know exactly how to bring a 10-year-old into a group, how to increase their sense of purpose until they become very loyal,” Butts adds. “We need to be at least that good in attaching young people to our community.”
Positive development takes place at every step of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system — from when a public defender meets a client in lockup to the last appointment with a probation officer. For them, it’s not about creating a “feel-good” system, so much as designing systems that will reduce recidivism and lead to positive outcomes. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts offers a network of highly specialized public defenders for juveniles — a benchmark few under-resourced legal aid societies across the country have met. “What makes juvenile defense such a critical area of specialized practice is that in order to be effective, you need to have all the skills of an effective criminal defense lawyer and all the knowledge of adolescent development,” says Mary Ann Scali, head of the National Juvenile Defender Center. “In places like Massachusetts…, we know that we can provide constitutionally mandated access to counsel and effective counsel all the time.”
In Massachusetts, Dohan built the Committee for Public Counsel Services’s Youth Advocacy Department into a premier league of 36 staff attorneys and over 500 private attorneys who receive regular trainings on juvenile-specific topics. That’s a big feat considering these lawyers sign up for an unforgiving job. “The pay is terrible. Juvenile is the hardest place to make a living because there’s no private clients,” Dohan explains. (Still, you won’t hear him brag about what he’s developed; when NationSwell reached out to profile him for this story, the humble attorney sent back a list of 18 other sources to interview.)
Even when these experienced defense lawyers can’t argue their client’s innocence, the child is still in good hands in the Department of Youth Services, which leverages every connection it has to ensure kids receive the services they need. DYS tries to offer “all those things that you’d want for your own 17-year-old teenager,” says Peter Forbes, DYS commissioner. Indeed, kids seem to grasp the value, because half continue to go back to DYS for services (like tutoring, job training, coaching and counseling) for up to three years after they’re released. Most return for about six months on average, Forbes reports — something that would be unheard of at a jail like New York’s Rikers Island or a prison like San Quentin in California.
And finally, once a child is put on probation, her public defender will argue for a reasonable plan that’s created to advance her best interests. It’s a stark contrast with the old model — “trail ‘em and nail ‘em,” as Dohan calls it. The new system’s main goal is to ensure conditions are achievable. Much of this advocacy centers on education. As Dohan’s seen from experience, an 8th grader reading at a 2nd grade level feels like they’re being “tortured.” Bored, frustrated or humiliated, these students are prone to acting out. To help a child catch up, the lawyers are trained to involve the school system. “It’s not enough not to be expelled. We also get them into a program in which they can succeed,” Dohan describes. Kids won’t march themselves into a principal’s office to request this fix, but their lawyers in Massachusetts will. “Our job is not just to make the kid look good in the courtroom,” he adds. “Our job is to litigate but then put them in a much better position to succeed when the case is over.”
In implementing this program, the Massachusetts reformers, at first, fought an uphill battle to win funding from legislators. “In fairness to legislators, you are asking them to make an investment of the public’s money. They should expect a return on that investment,” Dolan says. They quickly saw a payback, in the form of reduced recidivism, and legislators soon allowed money saved from reduced caseloads to be reinvested into other initiatives. (Where that funding didn’t suffice, agencies turned to nonprofits outside the state system to supplement their work, assistance they still rely on today.) As evidence accrues, it’s getting easier to sell the developmental approach.
Even as this model gains traction, it still presents problems to be solved. Up next? The reformers are trying to confront racial and ethnic discrimination that’s endemic to the system by rigorously studying the data to locate what Dolan calls “unintentional but undeniable” disparities in treatment, offering classes on implicit bias and working with partners outside corrections to generate awareness. If they get it right, there’s much that can be used in correctional systems — both juvenile and adult — nationwide. Dohan, Dolan and Forbes started out with the intention of helping kids see their future; in the process, they’ve defined what’s next for a justice system in sore need of a new direction.
MORE: When Traditional Disciplinary Actions Don’t Work, Restorative Justice Can Bring About the Healing Process

The Easy Ways to Reduce College Dropout Rates, Why Systems Thinking Is Necessary for Progress and More

Tiny Interventions Can Help Reverse Our Sky-High College Dropout Rate, FastCo.Exist
Less than two-thirds of students at four-year universities complete their degree within six years. Even worse? Only 29 percent graduate from a two-year school within three years. A recent report from Ideas42 reveals that simple solutions like supportive text messages and built-in study blocks can help solve this systemic problem.
Why Social Ventures Need Systems Thinking, Harvard Business Review
Some companies led by a single innovative thinker have brought about great change. But as Evan Marwell’s success with EducationSuperHighway demonstrates, it really takes a serial entrepreneur to tackle large-scale issues in order to revolutionize an entire system.
Five Voices on Reforming the Front End of Justice, The Marshall Project
Local innovation is reforming the criminal justice system. Five experts from various sides of the issue reveal how community and law enforcement collaborations reduce recidivism and crime rates, lower costs and save lives — all the while keeping citizens safe.
MORE: This One Bill Could Make Criminal Justice Reform a Reality

The Hope-Filled Program That’s Keeping One-Time Criminals from Becoming Serial Offenders

In the summer of 2015, Anthony was in a downward spiral, soaked in booze and clouded in a haze of marijuana smoke. “I saw no way out of my addiction,” the 56-year-old from Jamaica, Queens, says. He had stayed on the right side of the law since 2002, but he slipped up one day last July and found himself in handcuffs, booked on a felony charge of grand larceny. Advocates from The Fortune Society, a New York City nonprofit that provides court-approved rehabilitation, interceded on Anthony’s behalf and convinced a judge to let him try their program as an alternative to a three-year prison sentence.
The Fortune Society’s Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) is one of New York City’s most prominent pretrial release programs. With it, judges offer second chances in the courtroom and accused felons are voluntarily diverted into treatment. Enrollees remain under strict supervision — they must check in at Fortune’s offices daily — and spend their time working with a case manager to obtain stable housing, take classes to prep for the high-school equivalency test or job certifications and attend group sessions on anger management, decision-making and 12-steps to sobriety (these days, often for addictions to prescription painkillers). Those that fail to show up are remanded to court and their trial begins immediately, with little leeway from the judge; those that complete the requirements, are released without any time in lock-up. (Some receive probation or community service.) Of the 341 people who are assigned to Fortune’s ATI annually, roughly three out of every four successfully complete their court mandate, which usually means they have no new contact with law enforcement.
Counting down the days until the end of his court-ordered year in the program (which concluded on July 19), Anthony hopes to be included in that statistic. It isn’t that he is eager to leave Fortune behind; rather, he wants the external validation of the progress he’s made in 12 short months. Over a plate of ginger-poached chicken (part of the free lunch served daily) at Fortune’s headquarters in Long Island City on a recent afternoon, he spotted a journalist talking to two young guys and approached him.
Anthony located two free chairs, set his ID on the table and started talking. He credits his time in the program with transforming his criminal past into something good. “I really can’t overstate the positive difference [Fortune] had on my life,” he says. For starters, he got sober. Every one of his urine tests came back clean, and his attendance marks were high, he reported. He completed several job trainings and applied to LaGuardia Community College for next fall. He’s fully aware that employers are reluctant to hire a someone only a decade away from retirement — let alone a person that age with a criminal record — but Anthony is determined to be a nurse, a job that pays “a decent dollar.” He expected the judge would release him the following week.
“We, I think, have some of the most amazing folks walking our halls, who, because of poverty, because of race, because of lack of opportunity, are here. It’s such a criminal offense, I believe, to have somebody in our intake unit that dropped out of school in eleventh grade but tests in reading at a third grade level,” says Peggy Arroyo, ATI’s director. “That almost guarantees there is going to be a population that needs these services,” she says, adding that she “will gladly flip burgers at McDonalds” on the day when mass incarceration ends.
The quick turnaround in Anthony’s life would be an impressive accomplishment for anyone, but it’s particularly striking in comparison to the average results from New York’s correctional system. Those awaiting trial on Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail, struggle to maintain their sanity against the threats from fellow inmates and the barked orders or beatings from guards. (Last year, press attention focused on Kalief Browder, who was held on Rikers without trial for three years, much of it in solitary confinement. He committed suicide at his parent’s home in the Bronx in June. But there were also the lesser-known stories of Fabian Cruz, an inmate who killed himself on New Year’s Day, and Kenan Davis, an 18-year-old who hung himself in his cell while waiting for a psychiatrist.)
“I think if you’re arrested, you have PTSD. The mere act of somebody putting handcuffs on you: you have no control, you’re told what to do and maybe not why. I’ve never been incarcerated” — Arroyo knocks on her desk — “so I don’t know firsthand, but it seems that, for the young people who come through our program, there’s just this cloud of confusion and pain, like ‘What am I doing here?’”

A typical day starts with GED prep or vocational skill classes.

But getting through New York City’s jails might be the easy part. The difficulties of obtaining an apartment or a job — all the things people need to do to “survive in this insane city,” as Arroyo puts it — can be overwhelming for someone who’s just traded in his orange jumpsuit. Committing another crime might seem like the only fix. That’s likely why close to one-third of probationers — 32.4 percent — are re-arrested within three years, according to the most recent data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).
It’s stats like those that explain why there’s been a national push to curb mass incarceration in state and federal prisons. New York City has long been ahead of the curve, offering the country’s first pretrial release program in 1961 and witnessing significant drops in prison population without any major legislative mandates from the state capital. Most of the change can be attributed to a small core of nonprofits: among them, Fortune Society, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, the Osborne Association, the Women’s Prison Association and the Center for Court Innovation. Their alternatives to incarceration were designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate one-time criminals.
With the same clients cycling through courtrooms, diversion programs save money, encouraging prosecutors and judges to get on aboard, says Peggy Arroyo, ATI’s director. “It’s much less expensive to put somebody in Alternatives to Incarceration, and we believe it’s much more effective,” she explains. (DCJS is currently analyzing Fortune’s three-year recidivism rates; no data is publicly available yet.) “The higher the charge, the more of a sentence you would be facing. That’s more time we displace from prisons, and there’s a dollar figure attached to that,” she explains. Last year, ATI saved the state $2.95 million, Arroyo adds.
Among the select group of nonprofits, Fortune’s staff members say its size distinguishes their organization from others, allowing it to offer wraparound services to clients. “We’re very fortunate to be a one-stop shop,” Arroyo says. “We have everything: we have housing, mental health, substance abuse, employment services, education. We have it all.” The average day begins with educational classes — whether GED prep or vocational skills like cooking, construction and asbestos removal — from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., then several hours are spent in group therapy. Three evidence-based therapies make up those sessions: Moral Re-cognition Therapy focuses on how to make decisions that lead to a virtuous life, recognizing the errors in their previous thinking, making amends and reformulating a new process; Seeking Strength instructs how to led a healthy life, as it relates to safe sex, smoking pot and other choices; anger management classes teach participants how to defuse tense situations. Additional seminars — on parenting skills, relationships, relapse prevention — are also offered.
A storyboard created by students from Fortune’s Education program in collaboration with The Animation Project.

Those classes form the core of ATI’s programming, changing mindsets first so that men in the program choose to take advantage of Fortune’s other opportunities. They come to understand, not that they should be punished for breaking a law, but that the action they took hurt someone, the people around them and themselves. Fortune Society builds up the person, rather than the prisons, Arroyo says.
Josh, one of the boys in the lunchroom, says he never knew how to control his temper. When somebody would step on his foot on the subway or lost interest in conversation and looked away, Josh would lash out, sometimes violently. “I used to like to fight,” the 21-year-old from the Bronx admits. Initially at Fortune, he remained closed off. It wasn’t until he was remanded in January and sent back to jail that he straightened up. He hadn’t really cared whether he was in or out of prison, but he noticed that the advocates from Fortune fought for him to be released back to the program. “They went to bat for me harder than I did for myself,” he says. The judge gave him one more try. Josh stopped playing hooky, and listened more closely in the groups to older guys like Anthony, who, “have been through what I’ve seen.” Josh came to understand that he wasn’t a bad person, he “just didn’t go about it in the right way.” “I’m not innocent,” he cautions, but one day, he could be.
Arroyo says ATI helps these men realize their own potential and seize it. “By the end of the program, they realize things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. Now they have the opportunity to change that,” she explains. “We can’t undo what was done, but I hope for each individual to say, ‘No more. Not for me.’”
Fortune Society participants may not be able to change their past, but they can certainly modify the course for their future.
MORE: Who’s Responsible for Mass Incarceration? Van Jones Weighs In

The Unlikely Activists Putting a Stop to Sexual Trafficking, A Better Way to Harness the Power of the Sun and More

Truckers Take the Wheel in Effort to Halt Sex Trafficking, NPR
Rarely spoken about in America, forced prostitution is typically thought of as a crime that’s committed in other countries but not our own. A new awareness group — Truckers Against Trafficking — teaches those spending their days on interstate highways how to spot enslaved or “owned” young women.
New Concentrating Solar Tower Is Worth Its Salt with 24/7 Power, Scientific American
The sun is a fabulous source of clean, renewable energy, but it has its limitations. Until now. California’s Crescent Dunes’ solar power facility utilizes unique technology that stores enough electricity to power 75,000 homes, even when it’s dark or cloudy — overcoming a problem that’s baffled scientists for decades.
Sandra Bland, One Year Later, The Marshall Project
Bland’s jailhouse death prompted calls to reform the Texas criminal justice system. So far, jailers have been trained in de-escalation techniques, new intake forms are being used statewide and workers must complete annual suicide prevention training. Is reforming bail and how jails deal with mental health issues up next?
MORE: Going Solar Is Cheaper Than Ever. Here’s What You Need to Know About Getting Your Power From the Sun

The Visionary That’s Getting Everyone to the Table to Talk About Social Good

This February, on the exact same day, two governors from two very different states — Nikki Haley, a Republican in South Carolina, and Dan Malloy, a Democrat in Connecticut — both announced social impact bonds to promote family care: one for low-income moms, the other for parents struggling with substance abuse. Both of these bonds (also known as “pay for success”) deployed private dollars to fund the scaling of a social program. If the project succeeds in meeting specific, predesigned metrics, the private backers will profit from their investment; if not, taxpayers don’t owe a penny more. Behind both of these innovative, cross-sector partnerships was Tracy Palandjian, CEO of Social Finance, a nonprofit intermediary between all the parties, who helped bring the “pay for success” model to the United States after seeing it first implemented in England in 2010.
NationSwell spoke with Palandjian by phone from Boston about the daily obstacles and excitements that come with rethinking how American social services can reach more people in need.

Tracy Palandjian (third from left) with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (center), who championed the “pay for success” model.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
I have two. The first one is an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.” Just because one has a great idea and one could often accomplish a lot more, going at it alone is often insufficient if you really want to deliver a movement. That’s hugely evident in our work here. Imagine these very funky public-private nonprofit partnerships with so many stakeholders with very divergent motivations. What motivates a private investor? A sitting governor or mayor? The executive directors of these classic human service providers? We have everyone sit around a table to articulate a common goal — in this case, delivering results to our communities — when they have often conflicting frameworks and very different languages they speak in and very different world-views. Bringing them together around a very common goal among very uncommon stakeholders is something that we have found, yes, it’s challenging, but if we can rally this forth, we see enduring, powerful results coming out of those partnerships.
By way of background for my other one: I didn’t grow up in this country. I’m Chinese, and I grew up in Hong Kong. My grandfather whom I was very close to, his favorite quote was (translated to English): “Distance tests the strength of forces, time tests the hearts of men.” It really is a message about patience. A lot of things take time, and the people who can stay steadfast on that vision could achieve the most. My grandfather was born in 1903 in China. He took his courageous wife — my grandmother — and, at that point, four children, and literally fled the Second Wold War on foot, by boat and by train out of China into Hong Kong and then to Taiwan ultimately. He was a chemical engineer, completely self-taught. He left everything behind when he fled. Along the way, he lost two children. After they made it to safety, he started all over again. He made consumer batteries and completely rebuilt himself, his family and his business. I always think about their lives and what they were able to overcome and what they were able to accomplish. Sometimes, we take three steps backward to take five steps forward.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
One of my favorite books, which I’m proud to say is the namesake of our eldest daughter: a Chinese classic, “Tao Te Ching.” It’s just so poetic and so poignant about how one should live. And it’s full of these non-intuitive sentences like, “It is through being effortless that you can achieve the most.”
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
Taking a step back, social impact bonds are probably the latest and the most recent comer to this broader investing landscape. I agree there’s been a lot of hype, but the reason why people are excited about it is that the impact is so direct. When our investors get their money back and then some, it’s because somebody’s life has been improved. This very articulated, metric-driven all-around life improvement, whether it’s recidivism or job attainment or education attainment or improved health outcomes, these are the metrics of each of our deals. Someone’s life improvement is the source of the return back to the investor, and that connection is really powerful. While the field started off in criminal justice (and still a lot of projects are focused on reducing recidivism), we’re excited to see there are a lot of projects in early education, in early childhood, in health and in workforce development.
How do you try to inspire others?
I just try to be who I am. I believe, as a person, I’m best when I’m aligned as a human being and I’m 100 percent authentic. I don’t try to say something because it will inspire others. I don’t try to do something because, well, that’s what I believe a good leader should do. I try to model good behavior for my colleagues. I’m not perfect, I have lots of limitations. I try to be a good parent and model good behavior for our children. I feel very strongly about this; I feel like there are too many lessons and advice that people give. People just need to be authentic.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I am probably most proud of the fact that I really think that I understand two cultures perfectly well. Obviously, I grew up in my own [Chinese] culture. My whole family’s still in that part of the world. You never forget your own culture and your native language. But I also think I’ve worked in America long enough and I’ve worked with enough different sectors and different kinds of people that I really understand how this country and this culture works, too. I think that’s just a huge skill to be able to be empathetic, to be able to step into the shoes of others. I think it’s a really important skill to have, especially for our work, which requires us to talk across sectors and work across disciplines.
What don’t most people know about you that they should?
I’m an artist at heart. That’s what I did as a young kid, all throughout high school and college, I painted a lot, I drew a lot, I experimented with all kinds of mediums. I miss that part of my life. I haven’t done much since I graduated from college. Now, I watch my kids do it, and it makes me very happy.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.