LEGIT, a five-year-old program of the Osborne Association, is an alternative-to-incarceration program which first-time offender teens are mandated by the court or probation, to attend. Sharon Content is a former Wall Street analyst for Solomon Brothers, and LeeRoy Jordan, Jr. is a Qualified Health Professional, who has been with Osborne Associates for eleven years working as a chemical dependency and criminal justice professional. Ms. Content and Mr. Jordan describe the LEGIT program.
Sharon Content, Program Director
We’re budgeted at about $12,000 a year for each participant who otherwise would be costing the state $45,000 a year to imprison. But when you lockup these young people, wait a few years and let them out, you have not given them any new options or new skills. That’s what we do, we’re in the option business. We channel the energy they were using in a negative way into positive areas- the energy to hustle drugs, the energy they were using to steal cars, or any bad choices they may have made. We show them they have another option. We show them they can still earn money and use their entrepreneur’s spirit, without having to deal with the police, rival drug dealers, and the like. These are young people who may feel, “I’m not doing well in school. My community’s not giving me a whole bunch of choices, my family life isn’t going too well. So these are the only choices I have.” They make poor choices because they believe they don’t have other options to make a dollar.
We have three micro enterprises going on. Those are three businesses, Legit Teen Contractors, Legit Webmasters and Legit Teen Care Packages. I interview each teen and find out their interests. We don’t classify them by educational level, mathematical skills or reading skills. We group the teens by interests. What do you have an interest in? LEGIT Teen Contractors is a contractor’s business where they do small home repairs, painting, tiling, sheet-rocking, sanding floors, painting, all those types of things, refurbishing-taking garbage out of old buildings. If someone has an interest in that, they can go into that business. We tell them, “When you first come into the business, you come in as an employee. You’re paid $7.00 and hour. After you show your commitment and you show your interest level, then you can be promoted to a partner, where you get a share of the net profits.”
LEGIT Teens Website is a website design business. We target small businesses in the community who have heard about the Internet, the World-Wide-Web, but are not sure how they can become involved in it. We show business owners how we can create a website for them on the internet and avoid paying those high costs of creating a website. We also have LEGIT Teen Care Package, a business that will be sending care packages to state correctional facilities. For example you may want to send a package to a family member in Sing Sing, –you have to buy regulation products, properly box them and mail. Instead, you can come to us and chose from a catalogue of food items, toiletries, educational supplies, and other items that you select, and we will package and ship at a reasonable cost.
Also the teens prepare their income statements. For example, Legit Contractors just finished a $1,500 job, and they didn’t come to me and ask “Ms. Content, how do we get paid?” They told me after completing the appropriate financial statements. Each teen prepares an income statement telling what each partner receives and what each employee receives. They write their own checks and make their own deposits. The teens do all the work for the business. I teach them twice a week. The curriculum is divided into four areas: Marketing, Customer Service, Production, Finance and Record-keeping. I tell them, “There’s a business jargon you use and it works the same way as the jargon on the corner. If someone comes to your corner or your neighborhood and is not using the right language, you’re going to think they’re out of place, they don’t belong there. So if you don’t use the right jargon in the business community, they won’t believe you belong there as well. The terms are revenue, gross profit, net profit, and your bottom line. I go through each area. They design the flyers we use. When they think they’re finished they come to me and we proofread and check every word. If there are fifty words on the flyer and one is spelled wrong, I let them know about excellence and hand it back a thousand times if necessary to insure it’s perfect. I tell them that their flyer is a reflection of their work. “If you have one error there, someone who wants the house painted may think you’ll leave one door unpainted.” We visit each job site to ensure that the work is at professional standards.
The teens do all they work for the business and they have a very high energy level. They want to make money in a legitimate legal way. The media has given them a shoddy deal. Their communities, their schools, sometimes their family structures have disappointed them with a shoddy deal. How do you expect these teens to be role model citizens when everything else has failed them? Where will they get the components of being a positive person? How will they make choices that are positive when everything around them is negative? LEGIT attempts to be that positive outlet. LEGIT is a safe place with high expectations, discipline and lots of love. We give them options.
LeeRoy Jordan, Counselor
LEGIT targets teenaged boys from fourteen to seventeen, from Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, Bushwick, Crown Heights. This is in line with the fact that 75% of prisoners in the state prisons in New York State come from seven neighborhoods in our city. We target young kids who have been arrested for drug sale or possession.
LEGIT takes a holistic view of the young person and his or her situation. We have family consultations, group meetings and one-on-one counseling. As one example of what we do, let me tell you about some of our health concerns.
When you talk statistically, the rates of HIV among teenagers, and particularly among African-American and Latino teenagers, have gone up significantly. The majority of young men between the ages of fourteen and seventeen years old, say they are sexually active. Everyone says they use condoms, but then we get into the conversation. Part of our curriculum is called “Cap it and Wrap it.” There is a picture of a gun, with a condom over the barrel. We address the issue of violence as well as HIV and STD’s (sexually transmitted diseases) at the same time. We’re talking about fighting these two ills, homicide and HIV. We’re saying put a cap over your penis, put a cap over your gun.
We define success in several ways. First, that a teen completes the program. This takes from nine months to a year. That a teen has no more arrests and is enrolled in school. Over the course of five years, no young person attending this program has been lost to violence. This is in a group where 4 or 5 out of every 10 knows someone who has been murdered in the last twelve months. We also look to see if they are improving scholastically and that they are adhering to probation requirements. The core effort is first of all to get these young people stabilized. Nearly every kid has some kind of school-based problem. We are successful with a little more than 50% of the kids who come to us. This number is much better than the recidivism rate of the prison system. Our greatest success happens when we bring the young person back into the education process. That’s the bottom line.