Friday, July 7, 2017


Sunset over Kenmore Square, 2005.

“Your Honor, what if we help kids in gangs pay off debts to the court as an incentive to get jobs, go back to school, and quit the streets?” I asked Eddy Redd in 2007, who was the then-presiding justice of Roxbury Court.

“ADA Constantino,” he called me from days long past, back when I was a prosecutor arguing cases in his court, “anything you need.”

Judge Redd’s imprimatur flung the doors to Roxbury wide open, and soon the probation department, clerk magistrate’s office, and even my former colleagues in the DA’s office, were helping me enroll young men the city deemed "impact players," that is, the ones the police had considered most at risk of gun violence. 

In a month’s time the room was full of young men from Warren Gardens, Alpine, The P, and other neighborhoods called "hotspots" by the police. Many of them had felony convictions, and almost all of them were on probation and—the reason they were showing up to a program being run by a white former prosecutor—being harassed weekly by probation officers to pay the monies they owed to the court system. Monies they obviously couldn't pay, without going back to a hustle, because the system, far from helping them build lives, had made it much harder for them to land employment. 

My staff and I began going out into the community, meeting with local business owners, asking them to help young men turn their lives around. Many told us to get lost, others didn't. Several were fully on board and they began hiring the guys, one after another.  

In 2011 The New York Times wrote a story about the program in a two-part “Fixes” column, arguing for the expansion of programs that use court debt as an incentive for ex-offenders to meet reentry benchmarks. The Brennan Center for Justice featured the program as a “success story” in a national toolkit for local, state, and federal court practitioners.

The story should have ended here. Boston was a national leader in innovation. When something worked—and especially if it was proven to prevent shootings and save lives—the city’s funders and powerbrokers would obviously embrace it and scale it to full potential. But in 2011, despite these high-profile endorsements and a success record of helping 20 of 26 "proven-risk" (a clinical term I hate, but that many funders use) participants land jobs, we had to shut down. Despite sending more grant requests than I can count, we couldn’t raise enough funding. I still have an email saved from the coordinator at the Hyams Foundation, who, told me with a straight face that our program didn't meet their funding criteria, when the funding track I'd applied for had earmarked money to help young men of color become economically self-sufficient.

Mural of a crying eye in Uphams Corner, 2007.
Though it was hard to believe, I soon discovered that this was common, that programs that effectively prevented youth gun violence were shut down constantly. Like most pie-in-the-sky do-gooders, I thought I was the first one, the only one, who’d ever come up with an idea like this—classic white savior thinking, I know—but I also met Talia Rivera, then-coordinator of Boston’s High Risk Youth Network. Born and raised in Roxbury, Talia had started a similarly effective program in the Greenwood section of Dorchester and she'd shuttered the program for lack of funds, too.

Our experiences and those of many others we spoke to were troubling, to say the least, but I soon learned something far more sinister had happened in 2000, the year I arrived in Boston to start law school. In 1996, while I was still a senior in high school, Boston city officials learned how to turn youth gun violence off like a switch. Police, clergy, and community leaders rounded up the kids doing all of the shooting and offered them jobs and services instead of military operations and prosecutions. In the 29 months following the first meeting not a single teenager was killed in the City of Boston. They’d dubbed it a miracle—the “Boston Miracle”—but then the city inexplicably abandoned the program in January of 2000, and in the two years that followed, shootings had more than doubled.

Finished in Boston, struggling to understand what this meant—and, in blind faith to the system, and America, trying to convince myself that there had to be some plausible explanation for all of this—I took a job with a powerhouse criminal justice organization in Manhattan. The Vera Institute of Justice had made its name in the '70s dismantling a criminal bail system that punished low-income arrestees for not having any cash on hand. My new colleagues were Ivy Leaguers, industry titans from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Bureau of Justice Assistance, and other elite justice policy groups. They were statisticians and data wonks with immense brainpower. Vera was an ideal place to evaluate what had happened in Boston, and to try and use empirical data to remedy it.

Now I would get to see what the system was made of on a national level, and never could I have dreamed what I was about to witness. Judge Redd and I had unwittingly sprung a trap for the system, forcing it to choose between rehabilitation and revenue, and we would soon get to see what its intentions truly were.

[Part II, what happens next in New York City, here