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With $500,000 Investment, City Expands Youth Program

Louisville Metro Government

Brandon Pipkin wants a second chance.

He doesn't want to be defined by the crimes he committed as a younger man, or the mugshots that followed. He wants an education, a job and a future. He wants to fly planes, maybe join the Marine Corps.

But first, Pipkin, 20, says he'll need to take "baby steps" to get his life back on track.

To do that, he's enrolling in a city-sponsored program focused on supporting young people, like him, who've been in trouble or risk running into trouble. The program, dubbed ReImage, rolled out last November with a $200,000 budget of city funds.

This week, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced the program is expanding. Fischer said it is designed to give young people a second chance by helping them attain an education and get a job.

"While simultaneously reducing the odds that they will be further involved in crime and violence," he said.

Changing A Culture

Under the expansion plan, ReImage funding will be boosted to $500,000 in city funds. The program will couple with the federally funded Right Turn program, which forfeits federal support next year.

The expansion will provide support for some 250 people aged 16-24 years old, Fischer said. Participants will be referred to the program from an array of criminal justice entities, including Louisville Metro Youth Detention Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Louisville Public Defender.

KentuckianaWorks, the city's workforce development arm, will facilitate the program. Case workers and mentors will assist participants with career counseling and continuing their education.

Michael Gritton, executive director of KentuckianaWorks, said his office is working with the Legal Aid Society to help expunge participants' records of criminal violations, as well as convincing employers to see beyond a young person's history.

"There's a cultural challenge here that we're going to be trying to tackle where you want people to realize that human beings do make mistakes," he said. "But just because you made one mistake it shouldn't penalize you for the rest of your life."

Just more than 100 people aged 18-24 years old took part in ReImage's first rendition, according to data provided by KentuckianaWorks. Of those, nearly half found a job, fewer completed a workforce education program and about 10 percent went to college or postsecondary training, per the data.

The results from the first installment of ReImage "are about average," said Rashaad Abdur-Rahman, director of the city's office for safe and healthy neighborhoods.

"By no stretch of the imagination are we saying we've slam-dunked the program," he said.

Yet still, he defended the boosted investment in the program.

He said ReImage has a hyper-specific focus on supporting "high risk individuals." If the city-operated program can find success there, he said the chance for broader change will become evident.

Obstacles Remain

The expansion comes as the city struggles with a surge in violent crime.

Police datathrough August show a near 12 percent increase in violent crime this year compared with 2015.

The increase in murders and shootings, specifically, has led law enforcement officials, city leaders and community activists to call for change. Last year's homicide tally was the highest in nearly four decades and has already been surpassed in the first nine months of 2016, police data show.

Abdur-Rahman said programs like ReImage aren't designed or intended to address all the factors that lead to violence, but it can address a few pieces of the problem, like employment, education and civic engagement.

"This is part of this broad quiver of arrows we're firing at this issue," he said.

The program's success, he said, hinges on keeping young people alive and out of trouble. A key way to do that is to ensure young people get an education, a job and see the value in becoming engaged residents.

A big part of all of that, he said, is convincing employers to look past criminal histories, see value in young people with dreams and give them a chance.

"That is still a very real obstacle for folks," he said.

Brandon Pipkin agrees. He chalks up the burglary charges he netted last year as simply "trying to survive." Potential employers, however, don't quite see it that way, Pipkin said, which makes finding a job tough.

Challenge, though, is nothing new. He's led a life pocked with memories of violence -- fights and gun play -- stretching back to his youth.

Growing up in Chicago, he witnessed a peer pierced by a bullet while swinging on a playground. In Louisville, friends of his found themselves caught between two gangs.

"And they got shot," he said. "It's just terrible."

Now, long gone from the jail cell, standing with a pressed shirt and jeans just feet from the city's mayor and police chief, his vision of survival is much different. It centers not on stealing, but on striving.

And the challenge ahead, is one he welcomes. Pipkin said he trusts the program and the support it promises.

With it, he said, he'll get that second chance.

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.