YouthBuild lauded for keeping Fresno students from repeat offenses

Fresno students who were incarcerated and enrolled in the nonprofit education and job skills program YouthBuild are highly unlikely to relapse into criminal behavior, according to a report released Thursday.

Life After Lockup” found that 11 percent of previously convicted YouthBuild students in 260 communities were convicted of another crime after one year. That’s compared to the 21 to 33 percent one-year recidivism rate nationwide.

Even lower rates were recorded at nine YouthBuild programs with intensive programming for court-involved youths, including in Fresno. Just 1 percent of those students were convicted of another crime within a year.

Shawn Riggins, director of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Local Conservation Corps, leads YouthBuild locally. The program includes a charter school for those who lack a high school diploma and on-site Fresno City College classes.

He said students arrive at YouthBuild thinking people gave up on them and leave feeling like family. They work alongside Fresno police officers in low-income neighborhoods and help build affordable homes.

“A lot of them came from backgrounds where their family was the hindrance to their development,” Riggins said. “A lot of them come from a gang background. We have one year to overcome 18-20 years of negative influence.”

Riggins said the program has existed for 20 years in Fresno and helped thousands of young people. Fresno Unified School District board president Luis Chavez went through the program in the 1990s.

Mark Cohen, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, studied the YouthBuild model and found lower recidivism, higher graduation rates and an overall cost-benefit to society of $7 for every $1 spent on YouthBuild.

David Abromowitz, chief public policy officer of YouthBuild USA Inc. (the program support center in Massachusetts), said around one-third of YouthBuild students are previous offenders.

“YouthBuild wasn’t set up to be a criminal justice recidivism program,” he said, “but it turns out it’s working with the high-risk population.”

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo