Disrupting the Cycle of Incarceration and Poverty in Massachusetts

By Molly Baldwin, Founder and CEO, Roca and John Ward, former Director of External Affairs, Roca

Roca’s mission is to disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping young people transform their lives. A history of relentless outreach on the streets of our most dangerous urban communities has led Roca to develop and operate an evidence-based Intervention Model for High-Risk Young People ages 17 to 24.

Founded in 1988, Roca is an outcomes-driven organization dedicated to transforming the lives of the most high-risk young people ages 17-24 (street, court, and gang-involved; drop-outs; young parents). Roca combines relentless outreach with data-driven evaluation to produce consistent, positive outcomes for young people in the Greater Boston area, including the communities of Chelsea, Revere, Everett, Boston, and East Boston, as well as Springfield, Massachusetts.


High Risk Young Men's Program

Roca’s High Risk Young Men’s Program helps the most disconnected and disaffected young men—i.e. the young men at the very center of the incarceration crisis—change their destructive attitudes and behaviors, develop critical life and work readiness skills, stay out of jail, and get jobs. Roca’s data-driven approach shows that with the right programming and support, violent young offenders can change, with the result that they and their families have “more future,” communities are safer, and taxpayers save millions of dollars.

Roca works with young men, ages 17-24, who are involved in crime and other dangerous behaviors, who are neither working nor in school, and who outright refuse help or are not otherwise ready, willing, and able to participate in more traditional programs. Most of these young men have criminal records and are referred to Roca by the criminal justice system, which has assessed them as being at the highest risk of violence and re-incarceration. However, none of these young men are required to work with Roca.

Roca’s work is based on the theory that young people who are re-engaged through intensive, positive relationships can gain the competencies in life skills, education, and employment that will allow them to stay out of prison, move toward economic independence, and live out of harm’s way. In keeping with this theory of change, each young man in Roca’s High Risk Young Men’s Program is assigned to a Roca Youth Worker, whose “relentless outreach”—or unremitting effort to seek out and engage the young man and gain his trust—leads the young man to form a “transformational relationship” with his Youth Worker. These intense, positive relationships enable Youth Workers and other Roca staff to have hard conversations with the youth about attitudes, behavior, and life choices. Ultimately, these “transformational relationships” allow Youth Workers and other Roca staff to motivate, mentor, support, and track the young men as they progress through the program and make the changes in their attitudes and behavior that will enable them get and keep jobs and stay out of jail.

The first two years of the High Risk Young Men’s Program are intensive, with training in life skills, work readiness, and high school equivalency; a transitional employment program that pays real wages for real work and allows young men to practice work readiness skills in “real world” situations; and job placement, when other program requirements have been met. In the final two years, Roca provides continued support and follow-up, but on a less intensive basis. Meanwhile, Roca works continuously with all of the other institutions that touch these young men’s lives. In particular, we are working hand-in-hand with the police, helping to keep our communities and our young people safe, while creating new, peaceful ways of addressing crime that focus on helping young people curb their dangerous and criminal behaviors, instead of on simply meting out punishment.

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In FY15 Roca served 659 young men from Boston and 20 other cities in Eastern and Western Massachusetts. Of those who had been enrolled for 24 months or more:

  • 87% retained employment for 180 days or more
  • 93% had no new arrests 
  • 98% had no new incarcerations

A joint 2013 study by the Harvard Social Innovation Lab and the Massachusetts Department of Administration and Finance found that the rate of recidivism among the high risk youth who participated in the Roca program during 2008-2012 was 33% less than that of similarly high-risk youth who had not participated in the Roca program.

A Roca study of the outcomes for young men served by Roca compared to a Commonwealth Control Group showed a 66% reduction in recidivism.

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About the Authors

Molly Baldwin is the founder and chief executive officer of Roca. Molly began her professional life as a street worker and community organizer. Even in those early days, Molly made the connection between social and economic justice and has dedicated her professional life to creating the possibility of a brighter future for disconnected young people.

Roca is the culmination of that vision, and since its founding in 1988, Roca’s success in helping young people turn their lives around has been nationally recognized. Molly, along with her dedicated and talented staff, engage young people by developing relationships through relentless outreach and intensive support. Molly holds a master’s degree in education from Lesley University and an honorary PhD from Salem State University. She has over 34 years of experience in youth work, community work, organizational development, and management.

Until December, 2015, John Ward served as director of external affairs at Roca. He is currently the director of legislative affairs with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Suffolk County Sheriff's Department.

Contact Information


Web http://rocainc.org

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Reducing Recidivism and Improving Other Outcomes for Young Adults in the Juvenile and Adult Criminal Justice Systems by The Council of State Governments Justice Center 

Social Impact Bonds: Getting Better at Doing Good
by Congressman Joe Kennedy (The Boston Globe) 

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About this Series

In this series Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) experts were joined by other juvenile justice and young adult justice (YAJ) advocates, experts, policymakers, and practitioners to:

  • Share innovative approaches and information about challenges that justice-involved young adults present
  • Highlight significant opportunities that exist for reform
  • Provide an opportunity to connect people with research, policy, and programs across the United States and abroad

We encourage you to continue the conversation about #YoungAdultJustice on social media

The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, or Harvard University.

Molly Baldwin headshot