By Brooke Fedigan
Photographed by Marty Umans
I have yet to hear a second-chance story that didn’t touch my heart. Throughout the crazy lives of many of us, we’ve made poor decisions at one point or another that left us begging for a second chance; a redemption. Or we’ve simply heard the stories of those who made one bad decision or were down on their luck and desperately needed a break. Cases like these have me hanging on every word, lump in my throat, completely rooting for the underdog.
It takes a strong person to go to battle in court for those who have committed crimes like selling drugs, burglary or vandalism and to recognize the good in them because of a “gut feeling.” If only I could be so savvy.
Angel Rodriguez is the executive director of Avenues for Justice, and he is just such a person—some would say a saint. Avenues for Justice (AFJ) is a not-for-profit organization, originally known as the Andrew Glover Youth Program. Started in New York City in 1977, its mission is to intervene and reclaim young people from a life of crime and to provide the overloaded court system with a reliable alternative to incarceration. The kids fortunate enough to go through the program will be among the 90 percent of AFJ graduates who stay out of prison. This is quite a contrast to the 25–50 percent of youths released from NYS juvenile facilities who avoid future prison time.
When I sat down with Rodriguez, he had just returned to NYC from a Marine Corps retiree event in San Diego, where he was the guest of a retiree who was also a graduate of AFJ. This particular gentleman showed up on Rodriguez’s radar when he was all of 16 years old, already had a two-year-old daughter and was on probation. Knowing that he desperately wanted to become a Marine, he convinced Rodriguez to go to bat for him in the courts; and go to bat, he did. Rodriguez convinced the judge to terminate the youth from probation, and from there, Rodriguez accompanied him to Quantico, VA, where he enrolled in the Marine Corps. The young man was stationed all over before landing in San Diego. He retired from the Marines in July of 2018 and now resides in California with his wife (his high school sweetheart), along with their three children. In his retirement speech, he credited Rodriguez and said he “wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Angel.” Rodriguez said in his 30 years of knowing this gentleman, they still speak every single day.
Having grown up on the Lower East Side, Rodriguez hasn’t strayed from his lifelong neighborhood. With the help of donations and sponsorships, he and AFJ raised enough funds to buy a building not far from where he currently lives, which provides a safe place for young people to gather, from after school until 7:00 p.m. There is a common space, a computer room and rooms for counseling, training, education and employment assistance. This simple concept of keeping kids out of prison has saved hundreds of young lives every year, for over 30 years. But does everyone get saved?
“Most of these kids have no support from their families. The only support they have may be from gangs and good-for-nothing friends,” Rodriguez added.
Aside from gangs and concentrated poverty, broken families, failing education and drugs are AFJ’s major challenges. Kids in low-income communities are often born to single mothers, and for economic reasons, these mothers are forced to live with partners and relatives, resulting in overcrowded apartments. Drug trafficking fuels gang activity, along with prostitution and unauthorized access to guns.
When asked where Rodriguez hears of these kids, where he gets the referrals, he says from all different sources: police officers, families, teachers, community agencies and attorneys. The referrals come in daily.
As it turns out, most of the kids involved in AFJ started out in gangs. “These kids come from gangs. Their parents are members of gangs. Their grandparents are members. That’s all they know.” In many low-income communities, the cycle of arrests and imprisonment has become the norm. Teenagers in poor neighborhoods often see crime as the most effective way to get ahead. But Rodriguez sees a way to correct this.
“Avenues for Justice can truly point them in the right direction and give them the tools they need to survive outside of trouble.”
The success rate for Avenues for Justice graduates is astounding, and AFJ has saved New York State millions of dollars. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the average cost per individual for imprisonment is $352,663 per year. The average annual cost of support per person in the AFJ system: $4,300.
Hon. Bernard Fried, a retired judge who worked with Angel Rodriguez for years, stated, “The fact that I consistently released defendants to Angel is behavioral evidence of the high regard I had and still have for Avenues for Justice.”
In addition to all of the services AFJ provides, Rodriguez buys things for kids and families in need. In one case, a family had a bad case of bed bugs, and everything had to be thrown out. Rodriguez stepped in and bought them new living room furniture and new mattresses. An AFJ boy was graduating from high school and needed formal attire. Rodriguez went shopping with the boy and bought him his first suit. Rodriguez says it’s these little things that mean so much to everyone.
Rodriguez is looking to expand the organization and is actively raising funds for the cause. His mission never stops. “Before we start putting youth in jail, let’s figure out what else can be done. We have other options and solutions to these problems other than mass incarceration. We need more training, more therapy, more opportunities for these young people to grow to make their lives better.”
Avenues for Justice is a model to follow. It gives youth the second chance they deserve, including counseling and rehabilitation. It provides a safe haven to keep kids off the streets. Angel Rodriguez truly is a saint to every single person given the chance to enter the AFJ program—and not just to them, but to the New York City community.
To contribute to Avenues for Justice and support one of the nation’s most cost-effective, successful crime-fighting programs, visit www.avenuesforjustice.org. █