Keeping young people out of prison

Darren Aldridge came to the Youth Empowerment Project after getting out of jail. He's working on his GED and mentoring at-risk high school students, urging them to avoid making the same mistakes he made as a teenager.

Jeff Horwich: One in seven African-American men in New Orleans is imprisoned, on probation or parole. As part of our Wealth and Poverty reporting, Marketplace's Shereen Marisol Meraji spent time in New Orleans. She's been looking at how mass incarceration is making poverty worse. Today, she profiles a group working to keep young people out of jail.


Shereen Marisol Meraji: The Youth Empowerment Project's offices are in Central City, a part of New Orleans notorious for its high murder rate.

Darren Aldridge: At least 75 percent of the people I knew is either in jail -- and the other 15 percent probably be dead, you know?

Twenty-year-old Darren Aldridge is a student at its GED program.

Aldridge: I became a part of it because I had went to prison.

Aldridge went to jail on a gun charge and a condition of his release was that he get his GED.

About a decade ago, Melissa Sawyer was traveling all over Louisiana working to get kids released early from juvenile detention.

Melissa Sawyer: What we were finding was that there was no support system to help these kids be successful. Within 18 months, six of the kids I was working with were shot and killed.

Sawyer says in some cases jail was safer than the neighborhoods these kids were going home to. So, she co-founded the Youth Empowerment Project. It helps kids adjust to life outside. Sawyer says only 7 percent of the young people she's worked with have gone back, but...

Sawyer: I have young men coming through the doors asking our staff members all the time: Ms. Melissa do you have a job, do you have a job, can you help me get a job? And that's our biggest challenge.

Nationally, more than a third of young black men are unemployed. Sawyer says she thinks that number is much higher, because it doesn't count those who've never had a job. She says 80 percent of the young men who come to the Youth Empowerment Project -- guys like Darren Aldridge -- are looking for work.

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, for Marketplace.

About the author

Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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