Photo of a ONSE cohort
A ONSE cohort. Photo courtesy of ONSE.

In 2018, when Julius Terry was on parole and living in a shelter, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement gave him an opportunity to turn his life around. All that was asked from him was commitment. Terry now has a full time job at the ONSE office as an administrative assistant.

The Pathways program, headed by ONSE, is a transitional employment initiative that aims to decrease participants’ involvement in the criminal justice system by improving their education, training, and employment outcomes. Participants 25 to 30 years old must be referred to the program after being identified as either at risk of participating in a violent crime or being the victim of such violence.

“I love the fact that I have someplace to be every morning with responsibilities. I always wanted more. I was an orphan, I didn’t have my mom or my father. So the entirety of [my] life, I would have traded all of that just for normal,” Terry said. “I have an everyday job, it’s providing for my family, it’s providing for me. I’m not a problem to the community.”

Terry was able to enroll in the program through the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. CSOSA refers approximately three-fourths of Pathways participants, according to public testimony given by Tony Lewis Jr., the vocational development coordinator of CSOSA, at a D.C. Council performance oversight hearing in January.

“CSOSA believes job readiness and employment are absolutely essential to reducing recidivism and increasing public safety,” Lewis wrote.

Once selected, participants identify personal goals and milestones with their case managers, also known as “pathmakers,” in order to make individualized plans to address issues or obstacles in their way, according to ONSE Director Delbert McFadden. 

“We make sure that by the time they get through the program that we resolved all of those issues so there’s no barriers or excuses to why they can’t work or do what they need to do in their community or in their families and for themselves,” McFadden said.

The program lasts for one year and is carried out in three stages.The first is a nine-week classroom-based training where participants learn about life and job skills. The second offers six months of subsidized employment so that participants are able to have real work experience and establish a record of employment. In the third phase, long-term retention and support services are offered so that participants can successfully transition to permanent unsubsidized employment and continue to pursue and achieve all other goals.

ONSE emphasized the importance of including a paid component in the program because employment and income are substantial indicators of an individual’s likelihood to be involved in violent crime.

“Income is a huge factor and having steady employment, having a steady source of income, can stabilize an individual, can stabilize a family, and has a myriad of positive effects,” said a spokesperson for ONSE.

Most criminological theories suggest the general notion that employment deters crime. Income associated with work should reduce the motivation to commit crime for economic gain, according to research of sociology professors Sarah Lageson and Christopher Uggen. Further studies reveal differences in how work can affect crime rates among youth — but for adults, the quality of work and the bonds created through legal employment can more effectively decrease the chances of individuals committing a crime, Lageson and Uggen found.

ONSE said that over 25% of Pathways participants have housing instability and if any participant notes housing as a barrier, the team can assist them through the several wraparound services they provide. Other services include transportation benefits, nutritional services, mental health support, and more. By providing a multitude of agencies and services, the program is the most comprehensive in the District, according to Director McFadden.

“There’s no cookie cutter approach to this work,” he said. “Just like each community is different and has different needs, each participant of the program has different needs.”

ONSE was created by the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act. After the number of homicides in the city spiked in 2015, the NEAR Act was passed in 2016 and ONSE opened the following year. The bill sought to use public health approaches to prevent violence and reduce incarceration, covered different public safety initiatives designed to reduce violent crime, reform criminal justice provisions, and improve community-police relations.

“We make it our business to meet individuals where they are,” McFadden said. “We have an office of support for these individuals and that’s extremely important, that they feel comfortable. This is a safe haven for them. Some of them hate Fridays because they’re not going to see us for the weekend. It’s really a family feel here in the office.”

Since the inception of the ONSE agency, four cohorts of about 25 people have been enrolled in the Pathways program. Out of these 99 participants, 33 successfully completed phase three by securing unsubsidized employment.

The ONSE spokesperson said its budget will remain flat for the next fiscal year and the Pathways program will be funded at a larger capacity. McFadden said the office is looking to expand the number of cohorts for the Pathways program to allow enrollment of 50 to 100 more participants at a time. These funds were made available after a proposed increase to the Metropolitan Police Department’s fiscal year 2021 budget was reduced by $15 million in the wake of police brutality protests. The funds distributed to other public safety efforts outside of law enforcement.

[Read more: 2-day sit-in across from the Wilson Building protests DC police budget expansion]

Other departments, such as the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, also work with ONSE to provide staff or critical messengers to work with the participants. Clinton Lacey, director of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said the conversation of tackling crime prevention with a public health approach can be tied to the advocacy to defund the police and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There needs to be changes and approaches and structure and application of justice overall,” Lacey said. “What should that look like? I think this conversation and programs like Pathways and others provide the substance to begin answering these questions.”

Moving forward, McFadden said the office is working to be more intentional about ways to address mental health and maximize employment and housing opportunities. He noted the importance of creating an environment where the office staff and participants can build trust and interact with the inner potential of each individual.

“They’re extremely resilient, they’re extremely bright, we just have to create the opportunity, the environment, that’s conducive to their growth,” McFadden said. “Once we see that, we will better understand that we have assets in the community that we don’t utilize enough.”

Overall, Terry said that the program’s hands-on approach is different from anything he has ever experienced.

“Before the program, I had not too long ago been released from prison, and the wind could have took me whichever way,” he said. “In this situation, it was a government agency that reached out to me. They showed me it’s a better way. My entire life has drastically changed and I’m proud to work for ONSE.”

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Employers interested in learning more about hosting a Pathways program participant can request more information here.