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Akron court's COMPASS aims to steer young men onto right path
Akron Beacon Journal - 1/30/2021
The 19-year-old man gave a positive report during a recent Zoom session for the new COMPASS program in Akron court.
He was on his way to getting his driver’s license back and had a job.
“I’m going to finish the program strong,” he promised Judge David Hamilton.
“That’s really great, man,” Hamilton responded. “Do you think it’s helping?”
“It’s helping a lot,” the man responded. “When I’m out here, I think of the stuff you guys tell me. It just rings around in my head.”
That’s the aim of COMPASS — changing the way young men who’ve been getting into trouble think to steer their lives in the right direction. COMPASS, thought to be the first program of its kind in Ohio, stands for Compassion, Opportunity, Mentoring, Purpose, Assistance, Survival, Stepping Forward.
Hamilton, who was elected to the Akron bench in 2019, began COMPASS in November. He said it offers men between the ages of 18 and 26 who face criminal charges an alternative to straight probation or jail. He said many of them have completed probation or jail time before — and returned to doing the same things that landed them in trouble.
“It’s really a last-ditch effort for some of these young men,” said Hamilton, 36, a former Akron prosecutor and Summit County councilman who is the youngest-ever Akron judge.
Though COMPASS isn’t geared exclusively to minorities, Hamilton said one of the goals is addressing racial disparities, such as how Black males made up 7 percent of the population in Summit County but 40 percent of the county’s jail population in 2017.
“We want to reduce the recidivism rates,” Hamilton said. “Most folks don’t start out with a felony. They start with petty theft, marijuana use, stealing from Walmart — not a high-level felony. We want to stop them from going any further.”
Hamilton recently decided to open COMPASS to other courts in Summit County that have young men who meet the criteria. The judge would make participation in the program part of the man’s probation.
How it works
The start of COMPASS has been challenging because of the pandemic and limited access to court.
So far, four men have participated in the program — and it has mostly been conducted by videoconferencing or telephone.
The first step involves a trip to Minority Behavioral Health Group in Akron, where the staff talks to them, determines their needs and develops a plan.
Participants then have a weekly meeting with Mike Brown, a probation officer, and bi-weekly sessions with Hamilton, Brown and representatives of other agencies involved with the program.
After the pandemic, these meetings will be done in person. Hamilton would eventually like to offer other services, such as taking participants to get their hair cut and pick out a suit.
Brown, a retired Akron detective, said he looks for steps that could improve participants’ lives, such as getting their GED, going to college or trade school, finding a better-paying job and restoring driving privileges.
“We want to show them alternatives, rather than just getting in trouble,” he said.
Brown said his job is to make sure participants comply with the terms of their probation and keep on track to achieving their goals.
“I’m basically the bad guy,” he said. “Sometimes, I have to yell at them … I’d rather they get mad at me. Eventually, they’ll come around.”
Michael Irby, president of 100 Black Men of Akron, is serving as a mentor for the participants. He has an initial meeting with them in person and then communicates either by phone or in person.
“We’re making progress,” he said. “We really are. If COVID was not around, we would move a little faster.”
Irby said he works on getting to know the participants and gaining their trust. He recently told a new participant, “You have someone here who believes in you. You’ve got to believe in yourself. Your future’s not based on the past. Take everything that’s not positive and leave that back there.”
The program is expected to last six to 12 months. When participants graduate, they could have their records expunged.
Successes so far
Those involved with COMPASS point to small successes they’ve already seen.
One young man was so elated to get a 100 Black Men of Akron bracelet that he kept showing it off during a recent Zoom session.
“You would think he got a 14-carat tennis bracelet,” Hamilton said, laughing. “It hit me – sometimes it’s just the little things, showing people care.”
Hamilton said he was raised by a mother who had faith in God and loved and cared for him.
“A lot of these young men don’t have that,” he said. “They need one person to take time and show them some compassion.”
Irby was pleased during a recent session when a young man seemed engaged during the prayer they say together each time.
“He was a little more vocal saying ‘Amen’ than he was the first time,” Irby said. “We ask for strength to make the right choices and ask to be forgiven for bad choices.”
Irby felt he’d made a breakthrough. This man now trusted him.
“I could see it in his eyes — him saying, ‘This man actually cares,’” Irby said.
Brown said two participants have gotten their licenses back, found jobs and been able to keep them. He said he's started talking to them about their future plans.
That was the challenge Hamilton gave a 23-year-old participant during a recent COMPASS session. He asked where the man wants to be in five years.
The man said he’d like to get a job in welding or heating and air conditioning, both areas in which he’s had training. He is now working at a local Penn Station restaurant.
Hamilton challenged him to come up with a plan for what he needed to do to get a better job. He said the COMPASS team will then work with him to make this happen.
“I want you to start thinking a little higher,” the judge told him. “I think you’re on the right track. I just want to help you keep going.”
“All right,” the man said. “I got you.”
The program, though, suffered a major setback in late December when one of the participants was shot and killed.
Brown learned about Sincere Morrow’s death when he got a call from another COMPASS participant who heard about the slaying.
“Those are the types of things we try to prevent,” Brown said.
Morrow, 19, of Akron, was a bright young man who once scored a 1200 on the SAT without studying for it, according to his mother. COMPASS leaders say he had gotten into trouble but seemed earnest about wanting to improve his life.
Morrow, though, was found with gunshot wounds about 11:15 p.m.Dec. 30 in a front yard on Akron'sBaughman Street. He was taken to a local hospital, where he later died.
Morrow was the last person killed in Akron in 2020, a year when the city saw a record-setting 50 murders.
Lt. Michael Miller, an Akron police spokesman, said an arrest hasn’t yet been made in Morrow’s death.
“We will continue to work diligently to reduce violent crime while seeking justice and closure for the families that are impacted,” he said.
More: How will Akron respond to increase in violence?
On the day Morrow was killed, he talked to both Brown and Irby. He didn’t mention to either of them any problems he was having.
Irby said Morrow’s death shows the challenge those involved with COMPASS face to try to steer these young men onto the right path. He wishes Morrow had reached out to him.
“I could have said, ‘Here’s some advice: Those guys are not good for you at this point. You’re over here now, trying to make a difference in your life,’” Irby said.
Brown, who worked as a detective in the homicide and juvenile bureaus, said he’s never seen the violence this bad. He said some young men in Akron “consider living to 30 a big deal.”
Hamilton, who grew up in Akron, also has been concerned about the increase in violence. He hopes COMPASS can be among the local efforts that will curb this disturbing trend.
“Every other day, someone is dead or there’s been a shooting,” he said. “If we can really do something in our community, this will be something that will help a lot of people and turn a lot of lives around.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at email@example.com, 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.
Who: Open to men between the ages of 18 and 26 facing criminal charges in Summit County who are considered a high risk of getting into trouble again.
Factors: Participants may have issues with housing, unemployment or underemployment, trauma, family members or friends in the criminal justice system, criminal records , anger problems or mental illness.
Sessions: 1 p.m. Wednesdays.
For more information: Contact Darian Johnson, Akron Judge David Hamilton’s bailiff, at 330-375-2054 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://akronmunicipalcourt.org/programs/compass/.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron court's COMPASS aims to steer young men onto right path
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