Many had spent months in the city jail, or worse, in a federal penitentiary. One had been shot in the chest and survived. District authorities labeled them as people who were likely to again become a victim or perpetrator of a crime.
The two dozen young men celebrated a different story on Friday. They had completed an intensive six-week course to obtain new life skills, or as the graduates put it, to transform themselves.
The 24 men who entered the District’s Pathways program in December graduated to the next level: six months of working for a government agency in hopes of landing a job with the government or in the private sector.
“Alive and free,” the lead student speaker shouted to a packed room at the District’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement in Northeast Washington. He said he had served time in prison, had written poetry behind bars and felt he had been “been forgotten” when he got out.
He was skeptical of Pathways. But, he told the group, he has realized that “guns and drugs and jail are bad for my health.”
The Washington Post attended the graduation and agreed to not reveal the identities of the graduates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because, officials said, they feared repercussions as they worked to obtain jobs.
D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who before politics was a community organizer who worked with troubled men and youths, told the group he recognized some of them from his early days. He recalled that one of them had run away as a youth, and White counseled his crying mother in her living room.
“Right now, your life is on the line,” he told the graduates. “I’m tired of going to vigils.”
In a city experiencing a rise in homicides, Pathways was set up as part of an initiative by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to combat violence through social programs and outreach. Her office also hires violence interrupters to seek out crews or people engaged in conflicts and resolve the disputes before guns come out.
The Bowser administration also wants to increase the size of the police force, has made targeting firearms a priority for police and has stepped up criticism to pressure the judicial system to give sufficient punishment to deter crime.
Pathways targets troubled District residents, ages 17 to 35, and trains them in conflict resolution, how to deal with stress, and how to select best friends and role models. Classes meet each workday. A parole officer is assigned to ensure that no one skips a meeting. Each participant is paid $9.50 an hour for time spent in the classroom and for time spent at work.
Among the success stories is Robert Butler Jr., a 29-year-old who completed Pathways’ first class last year. He graduated from Ballou High School in 2007 and attended college, but pulled out of school and returned to the District when his parents lost their jobs.
Butler said he couldn’t find steady work and committed an armed robbery of a store. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. He got out in 2017 and his parole officer recommended Pathways. He now works for the neighborhood engagement office.
Butler said there are a lot of people who, like him, turn to crime because they can’t afford the basic necessities. “What do you do if you don’t have soap, and you can’t afford soap?” he said. “You look to steal it.”
He said the $9.50 an hour may seem low but it can mean everything to some. “Nine-fifty an hour buys deodorant,” Butler said. “You can buy lotion. Maybe a new pair of shoes. It’s not enough to pay rent. But where you’re staying, you’re no longer a burden.”
On Thursday, the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety quizzed leaders of the safety and engagement office about crime prevention efforts, noting an urgency after finishing 2018 with a near 40 percent spike in homicides and starting the year with 19 more killings. The committee chairman, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), said he wanted to “scale up our current work” with such programs.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said more money should be spent on the neighborhood office, saying shootings and homicides cost the city upward of $20 million a year, yet budgets for programs such as Pathways and violence interrupters barely reach $3 million.
McDuffie said it can take up to six months for someone to get into Pathways, and he said enrollment should be immediate. “We’ve got to lay out a better plan before we get into the summer,” he said.
On Friday, Bowser and D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced a $6 million investment in anti-crime efforts. The announcement at the Wilson Building came as the graduation ceremony was in full swing.
Butler told the graduates of the challenges ahead and about how they would have to start real jobs and show their bosses “you are not defined by your criminal history” but by “who they see right now.”