An organization that helps New York City teens accused of crimes get their lives back on track has won a $1.2 million City contract to help more young people. 

Exalt is a New York City-based non-profit that helps young people avoid a path to prison through its educational internship program. 

It says the money, awarded through the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative, will help it provide its program to 140 criminal justice-involved young people. 

Executive Director of exalt Gisele Castro said she was honored to partner with the office to help more of the most “at risk, hardest to serve young people” in the city. 

“Our proven, innovative program equips court-involved youth for college and careers – creating a path to economic and personal empowerment,” she said.

Founded in 2006, exalt has served over 1,900 young people ages 15-19 since its inception. Young people who enter the exalt program attend six weeks of after-school classes where they do a curriculum designed to help them embrace “the urgency of taking action to reverse their journey along the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Following this, they are prepared for and matched with an 8-week paid internship at partner organizations such as the Innocence Project and DBI. 

The organization said in 2019, of the 169 youth that graduated the program, over half were facing felony charges. Of those who were eligible, 60% received reduced sentences and 100% were placed in and completed a paid internship. 

Exalt helps young people get into internships and avoid the criminal justice system. Photo: Pexels.

“Over our history, under 5% of our graduates with convictions recidivate and 99% remain engaged and progressing in their education two years post graduation from exalt.”

Exalt 2017 graduate Denisha Lawrence said the program had provided her with support, advocacy and representation that gave her strength and increased knowledge about the justice system.

“In court alone – their presence, mental preparation, and proactivity given to all youth is tremendous.” She said she was looking forward to seeing the organization help more at-risk youth.

According to data gathered between Oct. 2018 and June 2019, Brooklyn had by far the most adolescent arrests of any borough, the Brooklyn Eagle reported, with 387 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 arrested. Manhattan was next with 284.

Exalt helps young people all over New York City. Photo: Pexels.

However, under a 2018 law designed to move teen felony law-breakers from criminal court, Brooklyn was doing better than any other borough in the city. Initial statistics compiled by the state showed 16-year-olds were transferred out of criminal court and into family court or the new youth section of criminal court 92% of the time.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said he believed minimizing young people’s interactions with the criminal justice system and the revolving door of incarceration and reoffending was beneficial for both their future and the community.

The new partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice was critical to exalt’s ability to expand, exalt Board Chair Lizzie Elston said. 

“Exalt’s work has never been more important to NYC’s future than it is at this moment, as the city grapples with how to heal from the devastating impact of COVID-19, police brutality, and violence on vulnerable communities of color.”

During the pandemic, the program moved from in classroom instruction and in-person internships to a fully virtual model, and 147 students have graduated the program since March.

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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