When JeDarrian Jones was released from Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center at the age of 15, he had spent a month and a half in custody on robbery and drug dealing charges — crimes he had committed because he needed the money. His probation officer made a suggestion: Get a job at Café Momentum.
Like other social enterprises focused on helping formerly incarcerated people, Café Momentum, located in Dallas, provides paid work for young people looking to get another start. But it also layers multiple forms of support — education, basic supplies and real-world skills — that are key to staying out of the system but hard for many youth to find at home.
In a single year, an estimated 2.1 million youth under the age of 18 will be arrested in the United States. While there are no national figures available for juvenile recidivism rates, a 2015 CSG Justice Center report found juveniles are much more likely than adults to commit another crime after incarceration.
That seems to be true generally of younger people in the criminal justice system. Incarcerated people aged 24 or younger who were released in 2012 had the highest likelihood of being rearrested within five years of their release, according to Justice Department data published in July. Eighty-one percent of the people studied across 34 states were arrested within five years of release, compared to 75 percent of those ages 25 to 39, and 61 percent of those ages 40 and older.
Early incarceration decreases the chances a juvenile will graduate high school or avoid the justice system as an adult. A 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed 10 years of data from over 34,000 minors who came before juvenile court in Chicago. The study found that those who were incarcerated as juveniles were 39 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 41 percent more likely to have entered adult prison by age 25 compared to other public school students from the same neighborhood.
But there is no single solution or “quick fix” to prevent teen recidivism.
“The juvenile justice area has more fads than findings, and I’m not sure we need more fads,” said Ed Mulvey, a professor of psychiatry emeritus from University of Pittsburgh who has studied how adolescents can get out of the justice system. “Because the idea of, ‘Well, if we could just get them a job, that would do it,’ or, ‘Well, their families are all screwed up, just get them out of that family,’ doesn’t work. If it were that simple, we would have figured it out by now.”
Café Momentum is one of a few programs that looks at the whole picture. The downtown Dallas restaurant offers a 12-month paid internship to teens aged 15 to 19 who are leaving juvenile facilities. Participants learn how to run all aspects of the operation — reception, cooking, waiting tables and sales. And while the state of Texas’ recidivism rate is 48.3 percent, the rate among Café Momentum participants is 15.2 percent.
When minors leave incarceration, they are usually still dependent on their parents or guardians, which means they have less control than adults in making choices for themselves.
“Teens are less independent so they may be going right back to the same environment that was problematic in the first place,” said Luke Hyde, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “Adults have more autonomy.”
To address this challenge, Café Momentum’s programming goes beyond the workplace, offering a safe environment for the teens to turn to after their release.
“Human beings are influenced 24 hours a day,” Chad Houser, founder of Café Momentum, told the PBS NewsHour. “If our hours of influence were confined to the six to eight hours that [our teenagers] were working, then they’re still being influenced, externally, the other 16 to 18 hours.”
A lounge within the Café Momentum building gives participants a place to spend time with each other and the Café Momentum staff, and offers activities such as yoga and book club. The organization also provides clothes, personal and feminine hygiene products, as well as baby care products.
“We realized if we could create a physical space for them to engage with programming in other hours outside of just working in the restaurant, then we could kind of tip the scales and become the dominant influence,” Houser said.
Café Momentum now has a case management team of social workers who address basic urgent needs such as housing, health care, food insecurities and legal advocacy. There is a career services coordinator who teaches financial literacy, budgeting, resume writing and mock interviews. Teenagers can also get sex ed resources, and finish their high school degree through Café Momentum’s high school, which is held across the street from the restaurant and is run by their education manager.
“As we’re building this ecosystem of support around our young people, part of that ecosystem is to help them build a foundation for the rest of their lives,” Houser said.
During his internship, Jones got involved in an altercation in his community and was shot in the shoulder. He was anxious about his mentors at Café Momentum finding out, because he feared they would disapprove. Instead, everyone from his Café Momentum community came to his house once he was released from the hospital, surrounding him with support.
“I felt really loved and I knew from then that this place was my home,” Jones said. “I knew that this was my family because they have my back no matter what.”
The fact that an adolescent’s brain is still developing can add to the challenges of fighting recidivism, according to Kenneth Dodge, the William McDougall Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. But it also leaves room for optimism.
“The adolescent brain is still changing and developing,” said Dodge, who studies the development and prevention of aggressive behaviors of minors. “It is impulsive and doesn’t have a lot of brake mechanisms on self-control. The good news is that the adolescent is able to be molded and changed and habilitated, and that seems to be more so than when people are adults.”
Houser said he has found that the best approach for handling teenagers’ naturally heightened hormones and emotions is to approach each person with a standard of nonjudgement.
“With teenagers comes a dearth of emotion, immaturity and waves of hormones, which are a first time feeling, so they don’t know how to handle them,” Houser said. “We work with kids that come from families who have been marginalized across multiple generations. When these kids have endured trauma throughout their life, it is normalized to them, and if you say to them, ‘That’s not normal,’ they wonder, ‘Why are you judging me?’”
In 2020, Café Momentum partnered with the Stand Together Foundation to eventually expand their model in more communities nationwide. They launched two new restaurants, in Nashville and Pittsburgh, in 2021, with plans to reach 10 communities in five years and 50 in 25 years.
After completing his 12-month internship, Jones went on to work at two other restaurants in Dallas before returning to work at Café Momentum as a restaurant supervisor, helping mentor teenagers in the same situation he was in when just starting out.
“Café Momentum changed my life,” Jones said. “I was in a rough spot. I was getting out of juvenile and was headed right back to doing the same thing before I went into juvenile. But when I came to Café Momentum, I had people on my team who actually cared about me and my circumstances.”