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"I really want to change my life": DJJ residents find hope in new mentorship program

Adults with a history of incarceration are working with youth at DJJ to set them up for a successful future.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new program is starting at the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to help those most at risk.

There's a new sense of hope for Craig Legg, one of the youth at DJJ's Broad River location. It's coming from a new initiative and partnership between the department and an organization called Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement, or CM3. 

"I really want to change my life, I really want to do better for myself," Legg said.

The program offers special one-on-one mentorship with adults that have either spent time incarcerated or have experience with the justice system. Legg says there is some mentorship being offered by DJJ, but rarely from someone who understands.

"They can't too much relate to us because they haven't been detained or in jail before, in prison. Some of these guys that's with this program, Paths to Redemption, they know how it feels to be stuck with nothing but four walls to yourself," Legg said. "They know how it feels to be detained."

The partnership was announced at an event on Thursday, where over 20 volunteers showed up to begin in-person training.

According to Clinton Lacey, president of Credible Messengers, this program has been proven effective in multiple locations nationwide.

"In New York City, we achieved a 60% reduction in recidivism. Those numbers were really unprecedented," Lacey said. "What’s needed is a layer of support from the community, a special layer of support from people who can relate and understand and build relationships with young people in a powerful way, in a way that can reach them, bring them hope and put them on a pathway to success."

DJJ Director Eden Hendrick says the program is one of many improvements coming to DJJ after months of criticism

"We just started a rapid response unit, which the agency has not had in probably 15 to 20 years," Hendrick said. "We're doing a lot of capital improvement projects. We've hired national consultants to come in and provide basically new training to our staff, a program called Back to Basics."

Lester Young is the CEO of Path2Redemption, a partner of Credible Messengers, and one of the volunteers for this new program. He says investments into South Carolina's youth can turn kids away from a dangerous lifestyle.

"I know how it feels to be left down. I know how it feels to feel like no one cares about you, Young said. "I've been in prison for 22 years and 5 months, I know what that feels like. But it was because of volunteers like myself that I am now, that I want to do the exact same thing."

Following training in the next few weeks, officials at DJJ say volunteers should be mentoring youth by the end of the month.

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