Login | February 28, 2021

Akron judge starts pilot alternative program for at-risk males

Legal News Reporter

Published: January 22, 2021

Akron Municipal Court Judge David Hamilton is the only African-American male judge in Summit County.
Yet most of the defendants who come to the court are Black men.
“Just my presence in the courtroom really makes a big difference,” Hamilton said. “When they see someone on the bench who looks like them, they’re going to feel like they have the opportunity to be treated fairly.”
Hamilton has taken that philosophy to heart with a new pilot court-sponsored program called COMPASS – an acronym for Compassion, Opportunity, Mentoring, Purpose, Assistance, Survival and Stepping forward.
The jail alternative program formally began Nov. 2 and was created for males aged 18 to 26 who are high risk to reoffend.
The target demographic will have a traumatic family history (including family members who also have a criminal history), a history of dealing with trauma/mental illness, a housing issue such as homelessness, a lack of work/underemployment and a lengthy criminal record.
Community partners will be involved to grant resources that will promote responsibility with the goal of helping the men enrolled lead productive lives. Examples of these resources include trauma therapy, counseling, formal mentorship, financial literacy and vocational services.
COMPASS, which will meet biweekly, is believed to be the first program of its kind in Ohio. Akron Municipal Court judges and probation department will refer viable candidates to COMPASS.
Although he has only been a judge since 2019, Hamilton got the idea to help such offenders in a previous public service role.
Hamilton, a former prosecutor and judicial attorney, also served as the District 5 Summit County councilman.
As the chair of public safety, he started and spearheaded the Summit County Jail Advisory Commission in 2017 to tackle issues at the jail.
“One of the things we found through research was that Black males make up only 7 percent of the population in Summit County, but they make up 40 percent of the population in the Summit County jails,” he said. “They’re overrepresented. The discrepancy was so astronomical I really felt like something had to be done.
“The COMPASS program isn’t really designed to discuss why that is, but I want to reduce the recividism rates. We want to get that 40 percent down to somewhere closer than what the population is. We want to tackle some of these barriers, like joblessness, lack of jobs and lack of therapy.”
The judge said the program isn’t only for Black males, however – it’s for anyone who falls through the criminal justice system cracks and does not qualify for other alternative programs.
“Through my practice as an attorney, a lot of these guys get out of jail and do the same thing they did before,” Hamilton said. “And one of the reasons is because they don’t have the opportunities. So once they get off probation or parole what happens to them? They usually can’t get a job so they’re doing what they did before to make money and they’re hanging around the wrong people. So we really haven’t changed their environment or their circumstances at all.
“This program is designed to give them job skills right now while they’re going through probation and then link them with a job once they get done. We will monitor their progress. That’s what COMPASS is all about. Giving them opportunities, helping them find their way, and if they do get off track, they can always find their way back with the mentoring and the job coaching.
“A lot of men don’t deal with the issues that they have. This program was designed to deal with those underlying issues. Most of the programs in the criminal justice system only deal with the crimes you are charged with. This program looks at why you did this.”
For instance, some defendants cannot make their child support payments and get their driver’s license suspended. Or they’re dealing with family trauma caused by growing up in a poor environment, or having trouble coping with the loss of a friend.
“Bottling up their emotions manifests itself in the crimes they commit,” the judge said.
Besides biweekly talks with Hamilton and the probation officer, COMPASS also consists of guest speakers who will discuss everything from the importance of financial literacy to how to dress for an interview.
Other components of the program include community partners who help with career skills – such as learning a trade - and job preparation.
Fairlawn tailoring company Savile Lane has agreed to provide suits for COMPASS participants to prepare for their interview. In addition, Beyond Expectations Barber College in Akron will give free haircuts to ensure COMPASS clients look and feel their best when entering the job market.
For the first year, Hamilton wants to keep the number of participants to a maximum of five people to see exactly how much time and money is needed to ensure the program’s success.
“The good thing about municipal court is we are seeing people just being introduced to the criminal justice system,” he said. “I have a unique opportunity to stop these young men from going further in the criminal justice system. We have the opportunity in Akron for this to be the model in other counties. I think it’s going to work. People are waiting to see change. There is a thirst for it.”
For more information on COMPASS, contact Hamilton’s courtroom at (330) 375-2054.