There are only two ways to reform a broken system: Advocate for change from the outside, or try to make change happen gradually by working within the system itself.
Carly Friedman chose the latter.
It wasn’t always that way. Friedman spent three years providing advocacy efforts on behalf of young Black men on the South Side of Chicago. Now, she’s hoping to affect change internally as the program director for the MENTOR Program, a recidivism reduction initiative in Philadelphia’s First Judicial District.
Friedman was recently charged with overseeing and developing the program’s pilot. MENTOR (Mentors Empowering Now to Overcome Recidivism) is now getting ready to graduate its first cohort of re-entrants.
The program is the brainchild of Common Pleas judges Michael Erdos and Lisa Rau (Friedman said Erdos isn’t fond of the “founder” attribution), both of whom were frustrated with seeing many of the same faces return to their courtrooms time and time again.
“They wanted to do something in order to interrupt that cycle of recidivism they were seeing all too often,” said Friedman. “So they put together a working group of an array of people from the court system and contacts in the community to come up with a blueprint for what is now the MENTOR program.”
Here’s how MENTOR works: Former inmates volunteer to participate in a 12-month program that matches them with a mentor working in the criminal justice field. Mentors and participants are required to communicate twice a week, meet two times a month for 30 minutes and attend a group workshop at the end of every month. Upon graduating the program, participants are able to have up to 18 months removed from their probation.
Upon graduating the program, participants are able to have up to 18 months removed from their probation.
Of the 26 participants in MENTOR’s pilot program, Friedman and company expect 14 to graduate.
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While Friedman said the sample size is too quaint to figure out whether or not the program is interrupting the cycle of recidivism, the outcomes of the pilot in terms of new arrests and convictions are “almost at the exact same percentage as what’s happening in Philadelphia,” a city home to a 65 percent recidivism rate.
This fall, MENTOR hopes to take in a cohort of 40 participants and add another 40 with another courtroom each year following. A recent Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) will pay for outcomes evaluation services at La Salle University over the course of three years. Friedman expects the program will have had 200 participants by then.
“We’re hoping we can show the courts this program is worth further investing in,” said Friedman.
Criminal justice reform is happening slowly from the inside, Friedman said, but the hope is that things will change with time.
“I come to work every day with the hope that at a basic level, I’m able to provide the types of services to young adults coming back from prison that prevent them from ever having to go back to prison again,” said Friedman. “I feel the [criminal justice] system is broken in so many ways, and to be a part of the work that I believe is changing that system…That’s what keeps me around.”