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A program in Tampa offers a new start to teens arrested for carrying guns

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Florida, recent mass shootings prompted lawmakers to crack down on teens who carry guns. A new law means more time in juvenile jail for possessing a gun, even if the teen doesn't use it. But does time behind bars help teenagers turn their lives around? Stephanie Colombini at member station WUSF reports on an alternative for young offenders, a Tampa program that's taking a public health approach by addressing underlying causes of community violence.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Damari was scared. Crime is high in his Tampa neighborhood, and he says sometimes men would harass him on his way to and from school. He was 16 when he started carrying a loaded handgun.

DAMARI: If nobody else could protect me, then I could protect myself.

COLOMBINI: Then Damari got caught with the gun at school last year, though police say he hadn't threatened anyone. They arrested him and charged him with a felony, possession of a firearm on school property. Damari spent 21 days in juvenile jail, and he was kicked out of his school for good.

DAMARI: I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen in my life because, you know, I was in, like, advanced classes and everything.

COLOMBINI: We're not using Damari's last name to protect future job opportunities. Had he shot someone, the state attorney might have transferred him to adult court, where punishment is much worse. But instead, the judge offered him a second chance. He ordered Damari to complete the youth gun offender program. That meant six months of showing up to meetings most nights with other teens arrested on gun charges. A rec center in Tampa serves as home base. Eight boys shuffled in one evening after playing basketball outside to unwind.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Everybody, come in and sit down. Let's go. Let's sit down.

COLOMBINI: They plop into their seats and dig into hamburgers passed around on paper plates. Up front there are some guest speakers, two men who recently got out of prison.

JAMES COBAN: Do me a favor, repeat this. Thirty-nine years...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Thirty-nine years.

COBAN: Thirty-nine years and two days. I want you to remember that. Thirty-nine years and two days.

COLOMBINI: That's how long James Coban served time for murder. And he told the boys he now feels immense sadness and shame for what he did.

COBAN: When I killed a person, I didn't kill just the person. I killed that person's potential. I killed everything that he could have done in life.

COLOMBINI: Teens in the program also meet with parents of kids who died in shootings. They visit hospitals and funeral homes, all to drive home the painful consequences of gun violence. The program was started last year by the nonprofit Safe & Sound Hillsborough. Freddy Barton is executive director.

FREDDY BARTON: Unfortunately, we saw a sharp increase in the number of kids being arrested on gun-related crimes.

COLOMBINI: Last October in one of Tampa's popular nightlife areas, a fight among teens and young adults escalated into gunfire. Two young people were killed and 16 injured. Barton wants to prevent violence like this. His program mostly focuses on kids who were carrying guns but hadn't hurt anyone with them yet.

BARTON: Everyone can have an opportunity to change their life. And so that's why we're trying to work with them as early as possible.

COLOMBINI: Recently, the number of kids in Florida arrested for carrying a gun or any weapon shot up almost 50%. Some kids, Damari, take guns that adults keep at home. And there's been a huge uptick in teens stealing guns from unlocked cars and selling them.

BARTON: We hear that people say, oh, you know, these are just bad kids. No, these kids are making bad decisions.

COLOMBINI: His program tackles root causes of gun violence like family trauma and poverty. Participants get anger management counseling. Mentors help them continue their education and connect them with jobs.

BARTON: So we look at all of the things that could possibly cause someone to fall down, and we address those things. And that's the public health approach of working with these kids here.

COLOMBINI: It takes a lot of work. All day, before the kids arrive in the evening, Barton and his colleague Thaddeus Wright are slammed. They're attending court hearings for teens, talking to parents, giving kids rides to the program and working with community partners.

(CROSSTALK)

COLOMBINI: Wright is a former Marine who came out of retirement to manage the program.

THADDEUS WRIGHT: A lot of these kids don't have positive male role models in their lives, so we try to fill that void as best we can.

COLOMBINI: Wright teaches the guys how to do things like tie a tie or he'll take them out bowling once in a while. One morning, Wright was working at the rec center when he got a phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WRIGHT: Hey, what's going on, brother?

COLOMBINI: A teen in their program was in a tough spot. He showed up to school even though his gun charge barred him from campus. His mom couldn't leave work to come get him, so he called Wright.

WRIGHT: This would go on all day. And that's kind of why we need help. It's never-ending.

COLOMBINI: Wright was busy but knew if he left the kid hanging, he could get in trouble again. So Wright Ubered him to the center so they could talk and had him stay the entire day. That added support means a lot to parents like Damari's mom, Dee. We're also not using her last name to protect his identity. Dee says dealing with Damari's arrest and the court system was really stressful.

DEE: Because I'm working a full-time job. I have another child. I was going to school at that time.

COLOMBINI: She says she saw Damari transform over the six months he spent in the program. He'd come home talking about career advice or community service he enjoyed. In September, a judge dismissed Damari's case.

DEE: This is a second chance for him to have a clean slate, to be able to live a full-fledged life.

COLOMBINI: In its first year, the youth gun offender program served 54 kids. All but nine successfully completed it. Studies show diversion programs like this are usually more effective than traditional punishment at keeping kids from reoffending, and they're cheaper to run. Damari's 17 now. I met him in a community garden after he wrapped up the program. His mom runs a couple in Tampa and he's been helping her out, picking vines or whatever she needs.

DAMARI: I help out more with, like, the labor stuff than actually doing the little seeds, so, like, watering and then building these beds.

COLOMBINI: Damari says he understands how reckless it was to walk around with a loaded gun. And now he feels more comfortable turning to adults for help.

DAMARI: I just wish people would stay out of trouble. Try to make your community the best community.

COLOMBINI: In December, Damari passed the GED and got his high school diploma. Mentors in the program suggested trade school, so now he's considering becoming an electrician or HVAC technician. At one point, Damari felt like the arrest was something he'd never recover from. But the program gave him a second chance and he plans to make the most of it.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa.

KELLY: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with WUSF and KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.