On regular days at the Fortune Society —a nonprofit organization that supports successful reentry from incarceration—, one could take a glimpse into Michael Perez’ office and easily find him in the midst of paperwork; writing reports, fulfilling compliance checks, and ensuring that his staff counselors are able to do their work timely. Sometimes, he would train new counselors coming on board.

As a supervisor of Freedom Program —one of the Alternatives To Incarceration or ATI units at Fortune— Perez’ list of work is behind the scenes, utterly different from what he did when he was a counselor where he could directly assist formerly incarcerated persons to get their lives back after being locked up. But Perez said his current position doesn’t hinder him from going beyond the extra mile; to get out of the office to build long time relation with his former clients —especially youngsters— and to make sure he is available when they need his help.

“Last night, I had one of my clients from two years ago come back and we were able to sit and chat about life. And this happens often — it’s a lifetime service,” he said. “ Even if it’s for one day service. Even if it’s just a talk. I get clients come back when I started in 2012, 2013 and they call back and say, ‘Mike, I need help,’ and that’s a beautiful thing.”

The Freedom Program in which Perez supervises is known as “for everybody else,” meaning that the program is intended for justice-involved individuals who neither have a substance abuse nor mental health issues but still need an intensive program to assist them whether in the transition to independent living, or as an alternative to jail time for the young.

“Maybe he has that first conviction, or that first arrest, or that pending conviction, and we don’t know what’s going on at home,” Perez said. “So when he catches this felony case, he has the opportunity to take advantage of an ATI, and that’s where we come in.” One can benefit from the program where they can get employment training, counseling and group support as an alternative to incarceration.

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Young clients of Fortune Society are attending rally on Wednesday (05/10) at the City Hall, New York. The rally aims to increase funding for the Alternatives To Incarceration (ATI), a program to reduce prison and jail population. (Photos by Mellie Cynthia)

Perez explained that not everyone allowed to be in the Freedom Program, but only those who are legally mandated by the court —have felony offenses and are likely to be sentenced to more than 190 days in jail— can attend the program. Before being admitted to the program, the client has to go through 30-day orientation with a transitional counselor. After they get admitted, the counselor will make an assessment to determine where the need is, then the clients will be transferred to another counselor who will stick with them during the length of the program.

“We have court advocates who represent them in court throughout the stay,” he said. “And I tell them we’re not the courts, not the lawyers, the DA, not parole. We’re the program. We’re here to help and guide you. We have to report to the courts and if you have any questions, we’ll guide you to answer any questions. We’ll do treatment plans and we’ll see how we can best help you to prepare.”

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Programs like Fortune’s ATI are becoming more popular nationwide because they are considered to be effective in reducing recidivism and deterring criminal activity, in particular among youth. Many criminal justice pundits and advocates argue that full levels of maturity are not reached until the mid-20s —which led young offenders making poor choices—, therefore they deserve second chances and, instead of being in jail, they need help to address the factors that are partly responsible for their crimes.

The inhumane condition of juvenile detentions around the country has also been widely known. Justice Department investigators found accounts of abuses around the country, including New York State’s juvenile system and the adolescent unit in New York City’s jail—Rikers Island— where excessive use of force, inadequate educational and mental health services, and a culture of violence are ripe. The severe living condition at prisons and jails will certainly diminish young adult’s life prospects and their opportunities to rebuild their lives.

A formerly incarcerated person himself, Perez knows the importance of individualized and rehabilitative approach so that youngsters can finally walk on the right path and stay out of prison. But what he taught to them wasn’t only for a short term target as to merely avoiding jail. “Of course, completing the program is a big deal because they get to avoid their jail sentence but it’s so much more than that,” he said.

During the 6-month program, Perez said he taught the youth little things that a lot of people don’t get to see, such as how to start speaking to their mother again and how to treat women respectfully by refraining from saying certain language or phrases that were viewed as abusive.

“Some guys will buy in but some guys have an ego,” he said. “But it’s good for them when they can see other guys say, ‘I don’t wanna be that dude. I want to be that guy who wants to do the right thing’. That’s powerful when you have 16-17 year old acknowledge that.”

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Having goals isn’t going to be fruitful without making plans and doing actions. That’s why Perez also taught them how to reach their goals using the SMART method which is an acronym for specific, measurable, realistic and attainable. So by the end of the program, all of the clients would realize that the lessons taught could be applied in the real world and to their goal.

Becoming a counselor for four years at Fortune and now supervising other counselors, Perez really values his job. He views what he has been doing as a rewarding one. “It gives you purpose and satisfaction to see clients make progress,” he said. “And not just when they’re completing their program, but when you can tell a client ‘I’m proud of you’ and see them embrace that, that’s how it changes your life.”

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