Photo courtesy of the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester (YSOW)
Executive Director Joanne Dunn provides hope for young people at the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester (YSOW).
The rhetoric surrounding the country’s justice system is so dense with politicization that it is difficult to discern what is right, what needs to be done, and how to bring about change. While both sides of the aisle can spar endlessly about incarceration, prison, and reform, Westchester residents need look no further than their own county to see a program addressing the issue in a concrete, practical, and effective way.
“The sweet spot or, I would say, the not-so-sweet spot, is getting to these young people when they’ve been sentenced,” says Joanne Dunn, executive director of the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester (YSOW). “The beauty of the shelter is that we’re able to divert young people from leading lives in prison to serving their sentences with us. We can restore them to a foundation where they can act on their future, build a life and dream.”
The YSOW, which was launched in 1975, offers a two-pronged approach to interrupting the downward spiral brought on by the arrests, trials, and incarcerations of young people. The men’s residential program offers a homelike alternative to jail or prison, both for those awaiting the outcome of a trial and for those who have been sentenced through the local court system.
“People come to our offices because they committed crimes, but that doesn’t mean they are defined by those crimes,” says Dunn, who is the first woman and first African American to lead the Mount Vernon-based program. “People are far better than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
The second prong of the program is the community-based LEAD Academy. LEAD — which stands for Leadership, Excellence, and Development — works with both men and women who have been released from jails and prisons and are returning to the community.
“People aren’t born criminals. We’ve learned that we truly don’t become adults until around the age of 25,” Dunn says. “So, we peel back the makeup of these young people and ask what their foundation was. Were they a foster child? Do they have a learning disability? Is there substance abuse? Was there physical abuse in the family? Is there mental illness? From there, we design a holistic and comprehensive program to address their issues.”
The emphasis is on developing the skills, attitudes, and mindsets that an individual can apply to set a new course or direction in their lives. The components of the program are designed to treat the whole person with the realization that issues faced by young people caught up in the legal system are complex and cannot be addressed with a simple one-size-fits-all intervention.
LEAD has programs in vocational training, substance abuse, and mental health services, a GED program, training in conflict resolution and violence prevention, as well as arts- and cultural-enrichment programs. Each individual receives case management and other support for a year.
The shelter itself is a house, not an institution. There are staff members present but not armed guards, and there are bedrooms, not cells. It is meant to be a home.
“The aesthetic is important. We want them to feel at home. They know how important this opportunity is and how lucky they are to be here and not in prison.”
—Joanne Dunn Executive Director of the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester (YSOW)
“The aesthetic is important. We want them to feel at home. They know how important this opportunity is and how lucky they are to be here and not in prison. It is built on trust,” Dunn says.
Dunn is aware of the criticism that such programs are “soft on crime” and a misuse of taxpayer’s money, coddling those who have violated our society’s norms. Part of what she does is educate the community.
“There is actually a cost savings,” she says. “Our program is much cheaper than sending a young person to prison. And in prison, you are just spending time, and eventually those people are going to be released back into our neighborhoods without rehabilitation. Diversion makes much more sense.”
“Alternatives to traditional prosecutions are a critically important and necessary tool for modern prosecutors to help reduce recidivism and ensure greater community safety.” —Mimi Rocah Westchester County District Attorney
Dunn is not the only one who has faith in the program. Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah is a believer in both the concept and in Dunn.
“Alternatives to traditional prosecutions are a critically important and necessary tool for modern prosecutors to help reduce recidivism and ensure greater community safety,” Rocah says. “We continue to work on expanding these programs here in Westchester County. Not only do I believe that these initiatives are the right thing to do, but they are also effective early-intervention tools in crime and violence prevention.”
Dunn’s education, work history, and personal passions almost seem like they were created for her to be at the helm of YSOW. She has a degree in child-and-family development from Benedict College; she was assistant vice president of youth and employment services at Westhab, where she spent 12 years; and she worked with the City of Peekskill Youth Bureau to provide overall leadership and direction to the Workforce Investment Act Out-of-School Youth program. Yet, it was less about her career and more about her personal experience that brought her to where she is today.
“My father went to prison when I was 4 years old. He came out of prison when I was 32.
It is personal for me, because as a young person, I had the cards stacked against me,” Dunn says. “I’ve made it my mission in life to empower people to traverse life’s obstacles and turn their powers into good. I’ve had pain and my own obstacles in life, but with my faith, my family, and a lot of help, I’ve been able to turn that pain into purpose.”