After one offender told Judge Shawn LaGrua he’d been showing up to school on time because he finally got an alarm clock, she praised him and led applause that spread throughout the crowded courtroom.
The Fulton County Superior Court judge then congratulated another young man who’d proudly reported he’d just received a raise at work. “You’re an amazing success story,” LaGrua gushed.
But when another offender offered up a lame excuse as to why he didn’t meet his monthly obligations, LaGrua snapped, “Why are you lying to me? You’re on thin ice. Very thin ice.” He promised to do better.
The three offenders were among dozens attending a recent hearing for “My Journey Matters,” believed to be a one-of-its-kind program to divert young men and women from a lifetime of crime and incarceration. At the monthly hearings, one participant after another took their turns and stood before LaGrua. They turned in their required book reports and gave updates on their life, education and work.
Those who succeed get applause and support. Those who slip up get a stern talking to, a few days in jail or a lengthy prison sentence.
These participants aren’t petty criminals. Most have committed offenses like armed robbery.
In other courtrooms, that means a minimum 10-year prison term with no chance of parole. In LaGrua’s courtroom, it means spending years in the “My Journey Matters” program. And those who graduate are not only spared prison time, they walk out of court as a first offender with no conviction on their record.
In other words, it’s the chance of a lifetime.
‘What do we do in 10 years?’
LaGrua, a former prosecutor, started the alternative sentencing program shortly after being appointed to the bench in July 2010. She’d previously had experience with accountability courts, such as a DUI program in DeKalb County where she served as solicitor.
The “My Journey Matters” program has operated during a time when Georgia has greatly expanded accountability courts for drug addicts, veterans and the mentally ill. LaGrua’s is particularly unique because it mostly handles violent offenders.
When she was a prosecutor two decades ago, LaGrua said, most of the violent offenders she dealt with were in their early 20s. When she took the bench eight years ago, the average age seemed to have dropped to 16 or 17. This prompted her to launch “My Journey Matters,” she said.
It’s entirely reasonable to impose a 10-year prison sentence to someone who robs a person at gunpoint, LaGrua said.
“But what do we do in 10 years?” LaGrua asked. “We’ll have a 27-year-old with no job skills, no education and nothing to come back to. He’s going to get back out and when he does there will be more victims.”
With no other alternatives for young, violent offenders, LaGrua said, “I thought I’d give this a try.”
During the monthly hearings, LaGrua presides not only as judge but also as a demanding schoolmarm and enthusiastic cheerleader. Just don’t lie to her and don’t ever commit another serious crime while in the program.
“When you mess up this opportunity, I’m not playing,” she said. “You do another crime, I’m sending you to prison and I’m not feeling bad about it.”
LaGrua said she’s only recently created a tracking system to monitor the successes and failures of the program. Some fellow judges have expressed skepticism of the program. The idea of putting someone with a violent criminal record back on the street where they may again commit a crime comes with risks.
Not all of LaGrua’s cases have been success stories. One participant committed more robberies while in the program. He got a decades-long prison sentence, LaGrua said. Another young offender who pleaded guilty to armed robbery now sits in Gwinnett County’s jail. He’s been charged with attempted armed robbery and breaking into autos.
A room full of books and clothes
LaGrua imposes lengthy sentences on offenders entering the program to show she means business.. She’ll often hand out “back-loaded” sentences — giving an offender at least 10 years on probation that is then followed by prison time, which won’t have to be served for those who make it through the program. LaGrua, acknowledging such sentences are extremely unusual, said she got the idea from a former Fulton County judge.
Participants have curfews and must write monthly book reports. They must also go to school and find a job. If someone tells LaGrua he or she can’t find work, she’ll ask for the places where they said they’d applied. Then she’ll call those places to make sure they were telling her the truth.
Those who do find work must then map out a budget and present it to LaGrua at the mandatory, monthly court hearings. The courtroom sessions include a prosecutor and a public defender who’s supported by a social worker. A probation officer also keeps watch.
A room off the side of LaGrua’s courtroom has shelves filled with books and racks of clothing that participants can wear for job interviews.
Participants are prepped for interviews by volunteers from the business community. Local banks send employees who show how a bank account can be opened.
“All the clients I’ve had go through it are better now than before they went in,” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ash Joshi said. “Something has improved in their lives. They’ve got a job. They’re more educated. They dress better. They talk better. They’re more respectful. They’re making better decisions.”
Last year, Joshi got Nyvon Nathaniel and his brother Nasym to join “My Journey Matters” after they were charged with attempted armed robbery of a U.S. Postal Service truck.
The brothers have started their own clothing business, with 23-year-old Nasym in charge of design and Nyvon, 21, handling marketing and sales.
“This program is teaching me things I didn’t know that I needed to know,” Nyvon McDaniel said. It is also requiring them to focus more on their clothing business because every month they must show LaGrua what milestones they’ve achieved, he said.
‘We consider these kids family’
Atlanta Police Officer Robert Livsey, one of three officers assigned to the program through a federal grant, said he gives participants plenty of support and guidance.
“Is this going to be hard? Very much so,” Livsey said he tells new members. “But if you’re willing to apply yourself you can get through this process. I’m just not going to do it for you.”
Livsey recently got a 2:30 a.m. phone call from a parent who said her son, a participant in the program, wasn’t taking his medications and had left the house. Livsey got out of bed and drove around the neighborhood until he found the young man, then took him home and got him to take his medication.
“It’s gotten to the point where we consider these kids family,” Livsey said.
The officers attend graduations, family cookouts and birthday parties. They’ve taken participants to sporting events, the theater and to college campuses so they can see what other people their own ages are doing.
“We want to expose them to as much as possible,” he said. “They need to know there’s much more out there for them.”
One of the keys, Livsey added, is getting the participants to appreciate the chance they’ve been given.
“It’s a golden opportunity,” he said. “They just have to take full advantage of it.”
LaGrua said the officers’ attempts to keep the program’s participants on the straight and narrow serves another benefit.
“In an era where there’s so much distrust of the police, here we have officers doing all they can to help these kids succeed,” she said. “They can be not only their mentors but their best friends. They quickly learn that these officers aren’t here to play a game of ‘gotcha.’”
Said Livsey, “How often do you see a police officer trying to keep you out of jail?”
There are risks in taking a chance on these young, violent offenders, LaGrua acknowledges. But she has no intention of walking away from “My Journey Matters.”
“It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done professionally,” she said. “I can’t see stopping this.”
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