Kids in the juvenile justice system have plenty of time to think about their futures. But inside one correctional facility in Stockton, a private business lets kids actually rehearse for their futures and help victims along the way.
Michael Casaglio introduces himself and some of his colleagues at Merit Partners, an environmentally certified electronic recycling business that’s located within the walls of the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility. There’s floor leader Terrance Turner, upcoming floor leader Jordan Rutkes and IT tech Chandler Luce.
“Cables, wires, computers, laptops, computer chips, motherboards,” says Casaglio, as he reels off the types of electronic equipment they resell and recycle.
Merit Partners is the only operation of its kind in a California correctional facility. The incarcerated youth do most of the work; a small support staff trains them. The job pays $8 an hour and teaches valuable skills, Casaglio says.
It’s a far cry from his drug-dealing past. He spent his youth in and out of foster care; his own parents were addicts, he says. He smoked pot at age 9, used hard drugs at 11 and, at 15, held his gun to another dealer.
“And during the course of the robbery, somebody tried to prevent us from getting away, so I shot him five times,” says Casaglio, who has been at Chad five years.
The murder haunts him. “I took somebody’s grandparent away,” he says. “I took somebody’s husband, I took somebody’s dad, and there’s nothing I can do to repay or replace that.”
But he is giving back. Twenty percent of the money he and his peers earn goes directly to victims. The youth contribute to a local victims fund every year, and also compensate the people harmed by their crimes by paying restitution fines.
The compensation is mandatory, but 18-year-old Chandler Luce says he would donate some of his earnings to make up for his past, even if it were optional.
“You look in here, and this is a place full of people who caused harm to the world. And I was part of that,” he says.
He says he rebelled against a strict upbringing that sometimes felt verbally abusive. One night he was at a wild party; police showed up and barged into a room where Luce was having sex with an underage girl. They were both drunk, he says, but he was drunker and he was charged with rape. He says counselors at Chad helped him get on the right track. They made him think about his actions in a whole new light.
“Was I using that alcohol as an excuse to take advantage of what I wanted, you know, and really it opened my eyes, you know?” he says. “A lot of people think, you know, what their crime did wasn’t really that bad, but once you go and you look at the reasons behind (why) you committed that crime, it was a mindset. You know, using the alcohol to get what I wanted.”
Tom Gammon worked for years as a consultant in Silicon Valley before retiring to run Merit Partners. The young men he hires go through an intensive interview and resume screening process. They’re the only kids in the facility who pay part of their room and board. One of the goals of the program is to teach them about budgeting. They even pay into a savings account so that they have some money when they get out of Chad.
“This is a very humbling experience,” says Gammon. “These kids — when you can hear them and see where they make a change in their life. How difficult that is. I mean a major deal. These kids, you hear some of their lives. It really just pains you. And you can’t go back and you can’t do anything and they’ve done wrong.”
Merit doesn’t track individual employees after they leave the facility. But Gammon says the low recidivism rate, about 10 percent — far below the historical 55 percent in juvenile justice — is one indicator the program is working.
Another positive sign: Employees like Terrance Turner want to go to college and be techies. Today Turner is cleaning up a computer for resale, a job that has nothing in common with his rough past, he says. His mother was an addict; his father was in and out of jail. Turner joined a gang so he could belong, and his life got worse. He was involved in the murder of a rival gang member, a 15-year-old boy. Initially he says he wanted a job with Merit only because it paid good money. But then he came to appreciate it on a different level.
“After awhile, you’re in here, you start to understand the value of a dollar, where our money goes,” he says. “And that is a strong thing that you learn here, about giving back to your victim.”
In 2013, Merit employees gave about $8,000 to the San Joaquin County Victim Witness emergency fund. Program Coordinator Gabriela Jaurequi says the fund helps people like 38-year-old ranch hand Mario Dominguez.
Dominquez was hit head-on by a drunken driver who was trying to pass a semi truck. Today Dominguez sits in a hospital bed in a two-room apartment he shares with his wife and 18-month-old daughter, Julie. He lost a leg in the accident, his arm was broken, and his other leg was shattered.
One arm is in a brace. But with the other, he beckons for his daughter. Jaurequi says the emergency fund helped him with the $60 transportation cost for each doctor’s appointment before he was signed up with a ride service. The fund can be a lifesaver, Jaurequi says — something she’s told the youth at Merit. In fact, she’s visited these kids several times and believes they are sincere about their desire to change.
“Sometimes meeting them, in my mind it’s hard to connect what they’ve done and who this person is that I meet,” she says. “It just doesn’t seem possible.”
Their crimes have hurt many people, Juarequi says, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change – and from what she’s seen, she has hope the change will last.