Delgado Forward is the name of the pilot program that partners the local community college with Section K of Criminal Court. Judge Hunter recommends offenders from his court to the program if they meet certain criteria. They are assessed and selected for the Delgado Forward based on their ability to commit to the program standards, remaining on probation until they have completed a job training or degree program.
Trying this non-traditional solution to criminal justice was a no-brainer for the long-time judge.
“After 21 years on the bench, I believe that if we are really serious about solutions to reduce crime and recidivism, if we are really serious about helping people and improving our city, if we are really serious about breaking the poverty-crime cycle, then we have got to start putting non-violent offenders on probation and in a position to improve their lives,” says Judge Hunter.
The partnership between Delgado and OPCDC-K will help support participants through the application and enrollment process at the college. Delgado will also develop an internship program with the court whereby students from the college’s Criminal Justice program will guide participants through the application and enrollment process, as well as serve as peer mentors.
About a dozen people have been referred to the program so far, says Dr. Arnel Cosey, an executive dean and vice-chancellor for student affairs at Delgado.
“(Judge Hunter) is being very careful about who he is referring. There is a major commitment required,” says Cosey, who adds that participants that don’t fulfill their requirements will find themselves back in Judge Hunter’s court.
“They will see me again, and it will not be pleasant,” Hunter says, adding that he chooses individuals that are truly interested in improving themselves. For example, non-violent offenders that have shown some interest in their education by having completed at least the 11th grade, graduating high school or even completing post-secondary school training or education are prime candidates, Hunter says.
“They have to want to do it,” he says.
There is also a major reward. In addition to completion of a pathway that may ultimately lead to gainful employment, successful participants can have their charges dismissed and their records expunged by Judge Hunter.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, suggesting an urgent need for a viable solution. Studies have demonstrated that education, particularly higher education, is one of the most effective ways to break cycles of poverty, incarceration, and re-incarceration. Further, it has been shown that there is an association between higher levels of education and higher earnings, which not only decreases the likelihood of incarceration but also positively affects the economy.
And that’s one reason Cosey says that when she got the call from Judge Hunter, she was excited about the idea.
“He called, we met and we talked about it,” she says. “It was an opportunity for us to be a part of a solution that is needed in the community and it helps (Delgado) to meet its mission. I think it is so important right now for institutions of higher learning to be a part of the criminal justice conversation. We’ve got to find a better way.”
Hunter echoes that belief.
“Delgado Forward exemplifies not only being tough on crime but being smart on crime,” he says. “If you make a person better, you make a family better. If you make a family better, you make a neighborhood better. When you make a neighborhood better, you make the city better.”
Individuals referred by the court to Delgado can choose from one of three program paths—Adult Basic Education for those needing to complete high school equivalency requirements, workforce development or the degree/certification path leading to a certificate or associate’s degree.
After completing GED requirements, Delgado Forward students can pursue training in one of three career areas—healthcare, culinary/hospitality or IT. Those who opt for the workforce development receive job-ready training in skilled crafts including HVAC, welding, carpentry or electrical training. Participants in the degree option can take credit courses in order to earn any of the certificates or degrees Delgado Community College offers to all of its students.
Cosey explains that participants can study across paths. For instance, a participant that needs to earn a GED can complete that pathway and then enroll in credit courses to earn a degree.
“All options are available,” she says.
Support services are also provided to participants to aid in their success, including individualized assessment and screening, benefits screening and career exploration. In fact, Delgado’s Gilda Ebanks is the first person Judge Hunter’s referrals encounter when they visit the campus. A social worker by training, Ebanks conducts the screening process that involves an inclusive assessment to determine if participants need assistance in getting other services—such as help with housing, medical needs, or nutrition assistance.
“So many individuals don’t think education is an option because they have all of these other challenges,” Cosey says. “It’s the same thing with adult women with young children who don’t think they can further their education because they don’t realize they may be eligible for childcare assistance.”
Helping Delgado Forward participants address other challenges in their lives increases their chances of success in the program, she adds.